Tuesday 28 January 2020

What is ecological economics? by Robert Costanza

Robert Costanza is one of the founders of the International Society for Ecological Economics. This interview is reprinted from Yale Insight (2010); see links to his recent writings and the online Encyclopedia of Earth. Also CASSE, Wikipedia on ecological economics and ecosystem services.

Robert Costanza
Q: What is ecological economics?
Ecological economics is a trans-disciplinary field. It's not trying to be a subdiscipline of economics or a subdiscipline of ecology, but really it's a bridge across not only ecology and economics but also psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and history. That's what’s necessary to get a more integrated picture of how humans have interacted with their environment in the past and how they might interact in the future. It’s an attempt to look at humans embedded in their ecological life-support system, not separate from the environment. It also has some design elements, in the sense of how do we design a sustainable future.? It’s not just analysis of the past but applies that analysis to create something new and better.

Q: How does it differ from environmental economics?
Environmental economics is a subdiscipline of economics, so it's applying standard economic thinking to the environment. Mainstream economics, I think, is focused largely on markets and while it recognizes that there are externalities, they are external—they're out there. Ecological economics tries to study everything outside the market as well as everything inside the market and bring the two together.

Conventional economics doesn't really recognize the importance of scale—the fact that we live on a finite planet, or that the economy, as a subsystem, cannot grow indefinitely into this larger, containing system. There are some biophysical limits there. The mainstream view doesn’t recognize those limits or thinks that technology can solve any resource constraint problems. It’s not that we can't continue to improve the human situation. But we have to recognize that the environment creates certain limits and constraints on that, and we can define a safe operating space within which we can do the best we can.

Q: You just mentioned scale. Elsewhere you have talked about distribution and allocation as key parts of ecological economics. Could you explain those as well?
The three interrelated goals of ecological economics are sustainable scale, fair distribution, and efficient allocation. All three of these contribute to human well-being and sustainability.

Distribution has many different impacts, not the least of which is its impact on social capital and on quality of life. We find that if the distribution of income is too big, that creates competing groups within society. You lose cooperation. There is actually research to show that more unequal societies are less productive in the end because they spend a lot of their energy trying to maintain that gap. So distribution has a lot of direct and indirect feedbacks on how the society is actually functioning that the conventional view tends to ignore. It just focuses on having more, the idea being that the more we have the more we can spread around. But I think we're getting into a time where we have to worry about distribution. We may not always have more to spread around.

Allocation is important within mainstream economics. But to think that the market is efficient at allocating resources requires a long list of assumptions that are seeming less and less realistic—not the least of which being that there has have to be no externalities. We're finding that the natural and social externalities are actually larger than the internalities of what's going on in the market. In that situation, you can't expect the market to efficiently allocate resources.

How do we fix that? Well, part of it is internalizing those externalities—pricing carbon, pricing impacts on other natural resources and ecosystem services. I'm involved with a company called Trucost that works on just that, quantifying the external environmental cost of a company and using that information to inform investors and the companies themselves about how they can reduce their external cost.

Q: You mentioned natural and social externalities. What is a social externality?
Maybe the simplest example would be the run- up of house sizes and house expenses that led to the housing bubble. Why do people think they need a bigger house? It's not because they really need a bigger house to satisfy their housing needs. It's only a status need. Other people in their peer group have a bigger house. It's really an arms race that drives this phenomenon. And arms races are not really socially productive. They just consume resources.

That's a social externality: someone getting a bigger house causes other people to think they need one. They buy houses that are outside their price range, for example, and over-extend themselves, and have to work harder in order to pay off the mortgage. And, actually, their quality of life suffers rather than improves by having this larger house.

Robert Frank, an economist from Cornell, offers a solution of changing the income tax rules so that we tax only consumption and not savings, and we tax consumptions at a very high, progressive rate. You could have as much income as you wanted, but if you chose to spend it on luxury goods, then you would be taxed at a very high rate. If you chose to invest it in things that are going to be socially more productive, then you wouldn't be taxed at all.

Q: With the current economic system, growth is …
The god.

Q: So how does it look different in ecological economics?
Standard economists don't seem to understand exponential growth. Ecological economics recognizes that the economy, like any other subsystem on the planet, cannot grow forever. And if you think of an organism as an analogy, organisms grow for a period and then they stop growing. They can still continue to improve and develop, but without physically growing, because if organisms did that you’d end up with nine-billion-ton hamsters. There is a great video on this.
[See the video on YouTube.]

So, in nature, things don't grow forever. If you want to tie economics back to nature, you have to recognize that the economy is going to stop growing at some point. That's not necessarily a bad thing. That's the way natural systems work. So what we need to do now is make the transition from the growth phase to the steady state; all natural systems do that. Think of a successional system in ecology. In an open field, all of the incentives in that system are to grow as fast as possible, to capture as much territory as you can as quickly as possible. And that's what we've been doing over the last several millennia. But once the field is filled up with early successional plants, they're more cooperation oriented, more steady-state. They're not going to keep growing.

What does that mean in terms of the economy? I think it means a shift away from sort of brute-force competition towards more cooperative, alliance-building, stable kinds of relationships. And if you want to translate that to the business community, it means that the cut-throat competition is probably going to come to an end, and we'll have more collaboration among the different parts of the system.

Q: For the companies and the countries that are currently benefiting from keeping externalities external, what's their motivation for going along with this?
One motivation is that they won't be able to continue along that path. I think the current recession is just one manifestation of that. We're hitting the limits of inputs like fossil fuels. When oil prices went to $140 a barrel, it partly burst the bubble in housing. If we get back on the growth path, I think that that will just lead to another increase in oil prices, which will then cut off that growth again. We'll sort of hit the ceiling.

I don't think it's going to be possible to continue growing indefinitely, certainly not on the output side, because of the impacts on climate. This growth produces CO2 that causes melting of the ice caps and sea level rise and disruption of the weather, which affects agriculture. All of that eventually will put a ceiling on the continuous growth of the economy. We'll be forced into it if we don't take charge and make a more rational kind of transition.

Q: I'm guessing carbon would be one of the key levers to internalize externalities. Are there others that people should be thinking about?
I think the mainstream has been pretty lax at even recognizing that those externalities exist, much less focusing on trying to find ways to internalize them. I don't think we can use the market to fix the market. We have to use the government and other institutions.

Elinor Ostrom’s work suggests other kinds of community institutions. Common asset trusts is one institution we might think of. Think of the atmosphere as an asset. Make it into a trust that's held so we can assign property rights to the atmosphere, but on behalf of the global community, not on behalf of private individuals. And then once we've assigned property rights, we can say anyone who damages our property is charged for that damage. And that's the legal justification for carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade system. But then we can also use those revenues to pay a dividend to all of the beneficiaries, which is everyone on Earth. That helps solve the distribution issue. We can also use revenues to enhance the asset, so investing in renewable energy and other things that reduce carbon emissions, or paying for carbon sequestration services of ecosystems.

Q: Looking at some of the businesses that are coming out related to ecosystem services, with carbon, they're globally oriented, but with watersheds, those, obviously, will forever be local…
Or at least regional.

Q: Right, so how do we have institutions at these different scales that are giving the right incentives? Does the role of a national government change?
To some extent. I think the role of the national government might be to set up and maintain these quasi-government institutions like watershed trusts, global atmospheric trusts, or ocean trusts.

Q: And what do markets look like in this system?
Markets do well dealing with goods that are rival and excludable. So you still have private goods, but they're the things that really are easy to privatize. For other things that are not rival, not excludable—like information, where the more you share it, the better it is—you need different institutions. Privatizing information doesn't really help society. It may help individuals who can prevent others from using it, but that doesn't help society, so we need to move back to more publicly funded research and free access to information. [Ed. note: public goods are non-rival and non-excludable].

Q: How far can win-win solutions get us?
I don't really know, but I can't see any reason to not pursue win-win solutions when we find them. But a key element of that is going back to what it is that you're actually trying to win. If your goal is to increase GDP and maximize growth, then I think that's the wrong goal. That's not really going to win. Then we're just continuing down the wrong path.

Q: What are some of the alternative measures instead of GDP?
Things like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which is not perfect but does at least try to separate the costs of growth from the benefits. And if you keep those accounts separate, you'll see that in the recent past, since 1975, we haven't actually been improving at all. Our costs have equaled our benefits, and GPI has basically leveled off since 1975, even though GDP has more than doubled.

If we switched and said that what we really wanted to improve is GPI, then there are ways we can do that without increasing GDP. In fact, GDP could decrease, and GPI could go up. We get what we measure, and if we're not measuring the right things, we are going to be getting the wrong results, too.

Q: You have said it's not a sacrifice to make this transition. It's a sacrifice not to. Could you explain that?
We're not really improving our well-being with this pursuit of infinite growth. In fact, well-being, in many places, is going down. And we're increasing the gap in income, which is affecting our social capital. So staying on the track that we're on is going to make us worse off; it's a sacrifice to stay on that track.

[See also: the Green New Deal for the USA and for Canada]

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Where we stand in the world

Thanks to the blog by Harvey Mead (former Quebec commissioner of the environment) for alerting us. This is an English version of his graph from Wikipedia. 

Saturday 23 January 2016

A Global Climate Insurgency? - by Bob McGahey

This article is reprinted with permission, from his blog Ecospirit 16 Jan 2016.

After years of fraught negotiations, we have a climate accord. Just getting 195 countries with different, often conflicting, interests to agree was a miracle of sorts. The document breaks new ground by aiming to hold the average temperature rise below 2C, to 1.5C, and reaching carbon neutrality by the “second half of the century.” The road map for how to get there is less clear. The INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions – whew!) are not binding, relying upon peer pressure at periodic reviews to curtail carbon emissions even further than current pledges, which would take us down to 3.5C, still well beyond the threshold of climate catastrophe. The current pledges do not go into effect until 2020, though there will be an opportunity for revising upward with a review process every five years. This is not tough enough, fast enough.

In a post this week at Common Dreams, Jeremy Brecher, a labor historian, notes that the governments of the world accepted no accountability in Paris, only going on record with a stronger common goal. Since they, and to some degree the U.N. as well, are accountable to the vested interests which put them in power, it is up to the people to stand up and force them to be “accountable to the world's real owners,” the people. In a more detailed piece, “A Non-Violent Insurgency for Climate Protection,” Brecher argues that there is legal ground for the people to rise up in multiple acts of civil disobedience to force governments, who are trustees guarding the air, oceans and forests, to abide by the laws that safeguard these critically endangered commons in a “global law-enforcing climate insurgency.” The foundation for this is called in the US thepublic trust doctrine, which is based upon the Justinian code of 535 A.D., naming certain areas asres communes, “common things” that are not held by the state. Hence the beleaguered notion of the commons. As Brecher puts it eloquently, “The governments of the world may rule the world, but they don't run the world – that is the common property of humanity.”

Fortunately, to defend that common property, an independent climate protection movement has emerged, which Brecher dates to the mass International Day of Climate Action in 2009, the most widespread political action day in planetary history. This has grown in recent years into the Blockadia movement, expertly documented by Naomi Klein. Increasingly, these actions are designed as civil disobedience aimed at enforcing fundamental legal and constitutional principles that are being flouted by the authorities they are disobeying. By calling these abuses into question, they are performing their legal duty, planetary citizens mounting what legal scholar James Gray Pope calls a “constitutional insurgency.” This insurgency aims to transform the world order, which Brecher argues is more attainable than challenging individual nation-states, and has in fact happened more than once in our lifetimes. Crucially, Brecher notes that the current world order, which protects the global corporations, especially Big Fossils, is “illegitimate but mutable.”

As law-enforcing or constitutional insurgents, activists are now invoking the necessity defence, which was unexpectedly successful in the case of Friend Jay O'Hara, when he and Ken Ward blocked a coal vessel at Brayton Point, Mass with his lobster boat (photo above). Defendants who blocked an oil train in 2014 in Washington state are mounting the same defense. We shall see what the court's response is. Even if the courts don't accept their arguments, these actions can “redefine what climate action is all about.” If legal actions continue to fail, Brecher envisions civil society tribunals chaired by senior retired judges and other respected figures calling expert witnesses with publicly acknowledged credentials. It's all about civil society moving into the black hole of accountability which the current world order lacks. I am convinced that civil society, in carefully strategized actions, their trials managed by expert environmental lawyers, can affect the misguided but mutable world order.

Since governments serve as trustees of the commons, environmental lawyers are working to utilize trust law to enforce the people's rights to enjoying the benefits of these commons. It may seem far-fetched – one environmental lawyer calls these kinds of challenges “hail Mary passes” - but successful use of trust law could require fossil fuel companies to pay damages for the colossal waste committed against the public trust. Fair damages would pay most of what is required to transition to a zero-carbon economy, and build the global Green Fund to help poor nations adapt to climate change.

Governments of the world need to be made accountable to the world's real owners. Yes, Jeremy Brecher, according to the Justinian code. But nobody owns the world, as the indigenous peoples will tell us. Ultimately, the world is God's, and the building climate insurgency is about the people rising up to return the Commons to Her. Or if you prefer, to Gaia, the evolutionary miracle which brought this perfectly-placed third rock to superabundant life. Earth stewardship in these critical times means joining the insurgency to defend Gaia, with whatever gifts we have.

Further reading and resources: 

Thursday 8 October 2015

A recipe for starvation

a Kenya farmer - Wikipedia
The cash-strapped UN World Food Programme has just dropped one-third of Syrian refugees from its food voucher program. In Sep 2015 over 360,000 Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring on Syria stopped receiving food. Earlier in 2015 the WFP had already cut recipients from 2.1 million to around 1.4 million, as well as the value of the vouchers. 

The WFP crisis is a direct result of deliberate underfunding by rich countries. The agency needed $236m to keep even the reduced program funded through November 2015. Only a few donors (Saudi and Qatar) have come forward, though the US just earmarked $85m for similar starvation crises in South Sudan.

Donors' squabbling has deadlocked food aid for 25 years. The rich countries have steadily cut money donations: total international agricultural aid fell from $1.9 billion in 1981 to less than $1 billion by 2001. The rich want to use “in kind” aka “tied aid” so they can dump their agricultural surpluses, which destroy the livelihood of local farmers. By 2008 there were only a few weeks' supply on hand.

The worldwide food crisis of 2008 plunged 100 million into extreme poverty. In Haiti and elsewhere the starving ate mud. "There has been a very deep institutional failure over how we deal with food problems," said C. Peter Timmer, a Harvard emeritus professor who studies food security. "Everybody understands that 80 percent of the world's poor are in rural areas. But the World Bank for 30 years has basically said market signals don't support agriculture, so we can't support agriculture."

Meanwhile, backed by USAID and AGRA, giant corporations push “climate smart agriculture” and a second “green revolution”: with GMOs, chemical fertilizers, fossil-fueled machinery, and marketing systems. This will deepen the climate crisis, the poverty of small farmers and hungry, vulnerable populations.

The NGO food justice movement (led by Via Campesina, IATP and Food First, etc.) urge food sovereignty, sustainable agroecology, and supporting women in agriculture. QUNO calls for UN recognition of the right to food and protection of genetic resources. In the US itself, the plight of black farmers and imported contract labor is ignored. None of these goals are recognized by the WFP and its funders.

PS: Michael Ignatieff in NYRB 18 Nov 2015 puts this in geopolitical perspective, urging  a new and better version of R2P. Basically he argues that the USA should accept half of the Syrian refugees (65,000 as UNHCR requests --  it would take 250,000 for the US to be as generous as Canada), and pressure other powers to feed the starving in the camps. These policies are morally and politically essential to support US allies, defeat ISIS propaganda, and rescue a Middle East generation from despair that will certainly create more jihadis. The stateless "will never forget" if they are turned away and starved. He urges creation of a new Nansen passport with biometric ID for all migrants. And he states correctly that the world refugee/migrant flow guided by iphones and Facebook is unstoppable by conventional "border security". If the US and European racist right wins by forcing this false solution, they (and we all) will lose. Sadly, this would be to repeat US history. Remember the St Louis.

Update: see QUNO's Food policy interactive trade tool (Dec 2015) by Susan Bragdon


Sunday 12 April 2015

Toward A True-Cost Economic Model: Cheater Economics vs Fair Play and Long-Term Survival -- by Randy Hayes

The author is a founder of the RainforestAction Network and consultant at the World Future Council founded by Jacob von Uexküll: 50 eminent global change-makers from governments, parliaments, civil society, academia, the arts and business. This position paper is re-posted with the author's permission from Foundation Earth, his new "ecological economy" thinktank.
Over the next century communities worldwide will experience an unprecedented shift of weather instability. Extreme weather events are ecological spasms often driving economic spasms and regional collapses. Concerned citizens and opinion leaders need to prepare before these eco-spasms proliferate. Far from being prepared, most leaders and power brokers are not mindful of the rethinking that is required. This working paper and appendix offers a brief economic vision, a set of economic principles, and list of problematic trends to help respond to the challenges as we work for a better day. –Randy Hayes

If I had a lot of money, I couldn’t afford to live as well as I do. – Mike Roselle, grassroots organizer and a founder of Earth First

A True-Cost Economy serves
society and respects the environment

Foundation Earth’s Strategic Response

It would be foolhardy to think that restructuring the global economy for long-term deep sustainability is an easy task, but we aren’t the type of people to give up. We will make this meaningful shift or we will go down fighting. Foundation Earth will put forth its solutions as thoughtfully and powerfully as we can, given our humble resources. Together we can help ensure that nature’s life support systems are healthy and that biological diverse systems, particularly large wild areas, are protected. Such systems are key to humanity’s wellbeing and the entire web of life.

Cheater Economics
There is indeed an “invisible hand” which left to its own devises promotes general good. That hand turns out to be nature’s ways – nourishing all things. The industrial economic invisible hand could best be called “Cheater Economics” (externalizing pollution costs). We call for a “True Cost Economy” based on nature’s ways.

This campaign can be thought of a twenty-five year process to help foster such a shift... the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns present sizable difficulties. Nature has a non-linear way of being. Will the soft landing of a semi-elegant twenty-five year economic transition be possible? Certainly not if we are headed to a four degree world. It will more likely be mini-collapses and rebuilding. We will prepare for both scenarios as best we can.

Nature’s “invisible hand” left to its own devices may indeed promote general good, but our collective campaign for a better world will need an active and visible hand. Please let us know what else you think we should be looking at and how you might help to enact this vision. Additional information on the model and the context of this work is in Appendix I

The Vision Starts with an Integrated Set of Goals

In this “age of plenty” vast numbers experience a deep spiritual hunger. Our current global economic system is achieving insufficiently and desperately needs to be changed. The goals of a better society aren’t so hard to imagine. In a simple straightforward sense we want highly educated/ecologically astute people, high levels of political and spiritual freedom, low infant mortality, low impact/low throughput lifestyles, clean environment with wild beautiful natural places, and a small gap between the greater and least financially well off people. We want to live in a close and proper relationship to nature, our communities, and the institutions we create. Arguably this would mean a rapid transition to a smaller primarily regional economy with less production and consumption, while improving likelihood of dignified and happier lives. It starts with selecting where you want to grow (wisdom, art, culture…) and where you want to degrow (pollution, industrial workaholic lives, intolerance…).

Picturing the New Era

A smaller economy tingles with vitality while producing and consuming less. Businesses respect the laws of nature and integrate principles of ecology. Systems function well within the carrying capacity of regional and global ecosystems. People value the fundamental cycles of life, understanding that nature supports all life, now and in the future. No one exports problems to other societies or to future generations. Everyone faces the reality of a true cost economy and benefits from it. If anyone pollutes, they pay the true cost of the hazards and damages. Conserving stuff, along with the inclination to consume less, lightens the true cost. In the new era, everyone appreciates that natural resources cannot be owned. They cannot be exploited – not for very long. There are no “corporate socialists in free market clothing” receiving subsidies. Market capital gravitates to sustainable solutions.
Yes, all this boils down to economic details. We exercise financial discipline. We balance budgets. We maintain financial reserves. We leverage debt with caution. We interact with other economies as partners – actually, as family members. There are still markets, mostly local, and we still seek to profit, but we internalize ecological and social costs through a truly transparent balance sheet of assets and liabilities. Yes, we seek increased prosperity, but we don’t attach this sense of wellbeing to the growth of stuff. We tie our sense of wellbeing to infinite possibilities in a finite physical world.

Central to the new era we will see that exploding populations will have stabilized and in fact declined dramatically. Via our numbers and by our commitment to future generations, natural systems rejuvenate beneath our reduced footprint. Food and agricultural systems will be much more focused on bioregional economies. Picture continental networks of more self-reliant local economies. Most of what is traded at the global level is art, culture, and ideas.

Effective governing requires informed people and a commitment to a set of just and wise principles. That is not where we are starting from yet we must shoulder our responsibility to work for the continuance of all life. Some believe that an economic paradigm shift from unaccountable exploitation is not only necessary, but unavoidable. What set of principles might this be built from? Here is a starting point that needs your help to improve.

12 Key Principles Guiding a Holistic Economy include (no particular order):
Interdependence - Responsibility - Carrying Capacity - True Cost - Non-commodification of Nature - Precautionary Technology - Compassionate Local Self-Reliance - Prosperity for All - Ecological Literacy - Public Governance - Zero Waste - Self-Correcting Feedback

1. Interdependence
A societal recognition that nature nourishes all things is a higher value then human self-interest. The economic rules reward solving problems together over personal aggrandizement. Any market system is subservient to nature’s laws. Cooperation not competition is the social doctrine and basis for the new economic order. Industrial advance crushing nature’s ways for the sake of capital is a thing of the past.

2. Responsibility 
Each generation leaves less and less of an ecological footprint, despite the population size, consumption rates, or technology choices. Every human has the duty to protect diversity within the whole. Nature has an inalienable right to exist, flourish, and evolve. Hard work to personally get ahead would still have a place in the system, but beyond sustainable consumption levels, family education, and retirement security most of any economic proceeds would need to support broader values.

3. Carrying Capacity
(sometimes called Planetary Boundaries): Free markets are not free from ecological limits. The economy and society must work to keep population, rates of consumption, and technologies in synch with (below) global, continental, and bioregional carrying capacity limits. The carrying capacity of a biological region needs to rule its human economy. Institutions of educational research and public governance need to be set up to better understand, and communicate appropriate operating spaces.

4. True Cost
When pollution externalities are internalized into the price you pay for goods and services, the “ecologically cleanest is the cheapest”. Wind and solar would be cheaper than dirty coal. Organic tomatoes or cotton would be cheaper than toxic tomatoes or cotton. When that is achieved we have more of a “True Cost Economy” and a more level business “playing” field. In a True Cost Economy the search for a bargain works for us instead against us. Dumping pollution into the river or sky is a form of “Cheater Economics” and has to stop. The True Cost Principle is analogous to the Polluter Pays Principle or the Internalization by Design approach. While everyone likes a bargain, it needs to be an honest bargain.

5. Non-commodification of Nature
Non-renewable resources (soil, water, land, primary forests etc.) aren’t to be treated as a commodity. Of the three basic categories of economic relationship include ownership, stewardship, and partnership the third one is to be emphasized in the general economy. Stewardship still implies some patriarchy (ex: I will steward you…), while partnership shows a more authentic reciprocity.

6. Precautionary Technology
When the consequences are possibly cataclysmic (such as cancer death) employ a “when in doubt play it safe” approach. This is what a mother does when raising her child and what we should do regarding the planet we live upon. The “burden of proof” lies with the initiator. Problem shifting is unacceptable. There are times when policies and laws should buffer nature from the market. This should especially be employed with all new technologies (see quote at end of this section). Envision the precautionary principle as a major part of technology policy.

7. Compassionate Local Self-Reliance
Employing the “Small is Beautiful” approach. Community-based, local production for local markets; trading within and among communities; new-style bartering without the traditional growth concept inherent to today’s money; and trading values for values, satisfying real needs, while helping others, rather than inventing new ones will be the approach of this economy. Maximize local, regional, and continental self-reliance, while actively helping other adjacent regions or elsewhere on the planet maximize their self-reliance (foreign aid policy). This is the care economy not the personal profit economy. Adhere to the subsidiarity approach, while valuing place & community.
Subsidiarity is an organizing approach or principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

8. Prosperity for All
The economic system is set up to help all (now and the future) earn and enjoy financial and food security, success, or good fortune. Greedy individual advance at the expense of others would not be tolerated.

9. Ecological Literacy
Wild nature, operating according to its own laws, is our principal teacher. Nature’s laws are immutable and a higher order then human laws. Members of public governance are responsible to understand the principles of biosphere ecology and to help all constituents to understand nature’s ways such that all can support the whole. There is no economic development or social justice on a dead planet.

10. Public Governance
Employing ecological literacy with other humanistic values, society must debate the legitimate functions of public governance and then fund it to fulfill those functions in a thoroughly competent manner. This includes deciding the level of the social safety net. Government regulation is not the enemy. Appropriate government regulation is key to protect the whole for this and future generations of the entire web of life. As E.F. Schumacher clarified, a sensible political economy fits nature and human nature.

11. Zero Waste
The economy needs to essentially be a zero waste, closed loop, sustainable production and consumption system. This is especially true for non-renewable resources.

12. Self-Correcting Feedback
Every living system must have accurate feedback to self-correct. Note the distorting effects of many current measures of progress and welfare such as the Dow Jones Index or GDP. Accurate and holistic measures need to be employed such that people see what they need in a timely manner (i.e. some items weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, by decade, by century, etc.) to make mid-course corrections. The new parameters will measure levels of public health and education, standards of nutrition, housing, gender equality, use of renewable resources, use of non-renewable resources, the degree of local self-reliance, and the success a closed-loop, zero-waste sustainable production and consumption system. There will be indicators of preventative health, ecological restoration, society’s capacity to resolve conflicts, and more.

All of our current environmental problems are unanticipated harmful consequences of our existing technology. There is no basis for believing that technology will miraculously stop causing new and unanticipated problems while it is solving the problems that it previously produced. – Jared Diamond

Problematic Trends

As we ponder an economic transition, what trends should we be cognizant of?

- The Age of Irresponsibility: the last sixty years of the industrial revolution (late 1700s to now) ...fostered a misguided vision of unbounded consumer freedoms along with adding billions of people. This has shredded much of the planet’s web of life and weakened our life support systems.
- There is strong evidence that the IPCC, with its thousand scientists, significantly underestimated the speed and momentum of greenhouse gas-driven ocean heating and biospheric stresses. We are faced with the need to make rapid and dramatic changes in the way we do nearly everything.
- It may be necessary to reduce GHGs by 80% by 2020 (8 years from 2012) to stay below 2 degree centigrade average temperature rise even though a two-degree rise is risky to life, as we have known it. Solutions commensurate with the scale and timing of the biospheric problems are not in popular dialog. 
- A sense of what to do in the short, medium, and long-term isn’t broadly understood. Structural solutions leading to a new economic model won’t likely be popularized in time to lead to any semi-soft landing.
- The earth’s capacity to support life will decrease. Extreme weather events will increase. The biosphere will spasm. Declining natural systems re linked to greater social inequity.
- The Living Planet Index reports that 1/3 of the natural world has been obliterated. The rate of destruction is increasing in most sectors. Our home planet is fast becoming uninhabitable.
Industrial agriculture is degrading or destroying the soil of one third of all land. Resource abuse of those life support systems may be a bigger problem than climate change.
- Floods and droughts from extreme weather events will disrupt food production such that the planetary population in 2100 could be less than at the beginning of the century.
- Disease will be more prevalent when antibiotics quit working.
- Eighty percent of the people in industrialized countries currently live in big cities. By 2050 the 80% megalopolis will be worldwide. There are about a ¼ million more people a day to feed and a ~¼ billion women who want to plan their families, but lack access to such planning services.
- The current economic problem was not brought on by Wall Street financial excesses, though there were many. Nor is it because of the commitment to growth, though that exacerbates problems. At its core the crisis is brought on by an ongoing lack of understanding and respect of the ecological principles that effectively are the operating system for the planet.
- Most elected officials and key agencies are subservient to big business; hence we don’t have “public governance”. For instance, US Treasury Dept. is too much of an arm of Wall Street. A few decades of incremental efforts to fix problems have little to show for the effort.
- Virtually all social change movements in the US are not involved in electing wiser, committed people. [Exceptions in environmental movement, at the national level, include Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, and Defenders of Wildlife.]
- Americans, left largely uneducated about ecological/economic realities and unorganized, are relatively helpless and will do little but watch the decline until that changes.
- Regarding the current global economic malaise, a return to... a flourishing economy with strong growth is not at all a likely option. One may see slow growth for a while with high unemployment, but it cannot get back (at least not for long) to “business as usual”

Author's note: Additional information on the model and the context of this work is included in Appendix I.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Antarctic krill: keystone species menaced by acidification and overfishing

Krill photo: Stephen Brookes
Nature Climate Change reported two years ago that krill were in danger from CO2 ocean acidification. The entire ecosystem could collapse within 200 years, says biologist Dr So Kawaguchi. It is already under stress from climate change: temperature rise, productivity change and ice melt. Another NCC article reported the dangers to other species. Vast areas of the ocean will become uninhabitable for reproduction of the krill, a keystone species on which whales, seals, penguins and seabirds depend. The British Antarctic Survey points to an 80% decline of krill since the 1970s, possibly due to loss of  food: algae under shrinking sea ice.

BioMarine's Krill Fishing and Processing Factory Ship Photo: Erwin Vermeulen / Sea Shepherd
Meanwhile another threat has emerged: industrial overfishing. Huge factory ships suck up tons of krill to turn them into "organic" fertilizeromega-3 pills and fishmeal for farmed fish. In effect, corporations are becoming the primary predator. Krill still constitute the largest biomass on the planet, outweighing the human population. In 2013, Sea Shepherd reported ships from Norway (shown), China, Korea, and Poland. Ironically, some  receive Marine Stewardship Council "sustainability" certification -- which leads to questions whether big conservation NGOs like WWF are greenwashing. 

Following the fishmeal trail raises more questions:  is this yet another case of factory farming, dangerous to ecosystems as well as human health? Sea Shepherd states: 
Fish farming has many well-documented problems: pollution of the fish farm locations, spreading of diseases and parasites to wild populations, higher contaminant levels than wild-caught fish... predators, like seals and sea lions [are] killed for being attracted to the fish farms and especially the wastefulness of catching fish (and in this case Krill), to feed other fish, to feed people...and dog food. Will there come a time when our pets consume more Krill than the world’s whales, like our factory farmed animals consume more fish than the world’s sharks?

Industrial competition for protein "is becoming more and more acute," Denzil Miller of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources told the New York Times. Though scientific estimates of the actual stock are still guesswork, NYT predicted the krill-killing industry, with new pumping and evaporator technology, could "jump from just more than 100,000 tons to several million tons" a year. Another fisheries collapse is in the making.

Further reading
Encyclopedia of Earth, the "Antarctica Large Marine System" (2012).
SOS Antarctic Krill, list of recent scientific studies.
Someofus.org: "Vacuuming the Antarctic for krill" (petition 2014).

Monday 16 March 2015

Ocean sinks failing - acidification crisis in N. America's shellfish industry

A collapse of West Coast scallop hatcheries is reported in Desmogblog (20 June 2014excerpt): 

In 2013, 25 years of smooth sea scallop farming at Island Sea Scallops suddenly came to an end. Years of dealing with a 10 per cent mortality rate, suddenly hit 90 to 95 per cent,CEO Rob Saunders told DeSmog Canada from his office in Qualicum Beach, B.C.
Over 10 million scallops died from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 batches. It was an unprecedented die-off and Saunders attributes their deaths to an increasingly acidic ocean. Saunders’ tests reveal the pH balance of the water used in his nursery dropped from the average of 8.2 to 7.2.
Some uncertainty still remains as to the cause of the die-off, but scientists have shown the growing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing the acidity of the oceans and inhibiting “the development and survival of larval shellfish.”
The Vancouver Aquarium’s records show the pH level in the Vancouver harbour has dropped from 8.1 in the 1970s to a low of 7.3 in 2001. And shellfish farmers up the Pacific Coast have been reporting massive die-offs for almost a decade.
A lot of people criticize me, saying you can’t prove it and of course I can’t, but the correlation is pretty strong,” says Saunders.
Islands Scallops along with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans are undertaking a research project to determine the root cause of the massive scallop die off.
This year, Island Scallops introduced a new heartier species of scallop and quickened harvest rates, “because we don’t expect the animals to live for two years,” said Saunders. The pH level is up a bit to 7.6, but Saunders is still seeing a 40 to 50 per cent mortality rate.
Am I feeling desperate – absolutely,” said Saunders “If you want to maintain a coastal industry, then we are going to need some help – we are going to need some help now, not two years from now.”
The Boston Globe's title "Rising acid levels in oceans imperil region’s shellfish: changes from surge in carbon dioxide take toll" (7 Mar 2015) is somewhat misleading; the acid levels it reports in Maine rivers come from precipitation. But the "canary in the mine" role of hatcheries as a monitor is significant. The article also notes a "shellfish crash" in the Pacific Northwest. According to an (over-optimistic?) NOAA report, that crash was reversed. It doesn't say exactly how, but presumably the hatcheries dam off acid waters, or time the hatchling release.

None of this will help the poor and vulnerable of the world who cannot afford fancy tech fixes. For instance, the Seattle Times' Seachange: food for millions at risk (21 Dec 2014).