Monday, January 16, 2012


In a post from the Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program blog (highlighted as one of their top posts of 2011 here — which is how I came across this year-old piece), authors of a recent paper in Environmental Conservation demonstrate how in a coupled human-environment/social-ecological system, addressing multiple, interrelated social and environmental factors leads to better, more sustainable conservation outcomes than trying to address each sector irrespective of the connections between them:
The results of the study provide strong evidence that the integrated model outperformed the single-sector models in terms of improvements in coral reef and mangrove health; individual family planning and reproductive health practices; and community-level indicators of food security and vulnerability to poverty. Young adults – especially young men – at the integrated site were more likely to use family planning and delay early sex than at the sites where only family planning and reproductive health interventions were provided.

Coral reef health – as measured by a composite condition index – and mangrove health increased significantly at the integrated site, compared to the site where only coastal resource management interventions were provided. Data from the integrated site also showed a significant decline in the number of full-time fishers, as well as fewer people who knew someone that used cyanide or dynamite to fish – both factors that amplify a community’s vulnerability to food insecurity. Finally, the proportion of young people with income below the poverty threshold decreased by a significant margin in areas where the integrated population and coastal resources management (IPOPCORM) model was applied.

Educational activities at the integrated site focused on illuminating the intrinsic relationship between fast-growing coastal communities in the Philippines and the diminishing health of the coral reefs and fisheries that they depend on for food and livelihoods. Community change agents, often fishermen and their families, talked to their neighbors and fellow fishers about the importance of planning and spacing families and establishing and respecting marine reserves to protect the supplies of food from the sea. They referred those interested in family planning to community-based social marketers of contraceptives or the nearest health center for other services.

These same community members also participated in activities to sustainably manage their coastal resources: working with local government officials to establish marine reserves, replant mangroves, serve as community fish wardens to patrol those reserves, test out alternative livelihoods such as seaweed farming, and start small businesses to diversify their income and reduce fishing pressure.

Development professionals should pay close attention to the conclusions of this study. In environmentally significant areas where human population growth is high, it will be difficult to sustain conservation gains without parallel efforts to address demographic factors and inequities in the distribution of health and family planning services. Integrating responses to population, health, and environment (PHE) issues provides an opportunity to address multiple stresses on communities and their environments and, as this study demonstrates, adds value in such a way that significantly improves community resilience and other outcomes.

This research allows those of us who believe strongly in integrating population, health, and environment programming to point to quantitative proof that the approach works. We now need to expand PHE programming to reach more people in other parts of the world where communities face a similar nexus of challenges. New initiatives have started taking the lessons from this research, applying them to new contexts in Africa and Asia, and scaling them up to reach many more in the Philippines.

Now that it's gone industrial, organic isn't necessarily environmentally sustainable — and even if there are short-term benefits to subsistence farmers, the long-term trend sure isn't looking good if there will soon be no more water to be found:

But even as more Americans buy foods with the organic label, the products are increasingly removed from the traditional organic ideal: produce that is not only free of chemicals and pesticides but also grown locally on small farms in a way that protects the environment.

The explosive growth in the commercial cultivation of organic tomatoes here, for example, is putting stress on the water table. In some areas, wells have run dry this year, meaning that small subsistence farmers cannot grow crops. And the organic tomatoes end up in an energy-intensive global distribution chain that takes them as far as New York and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, producing significant emissions that contribute to global warming.

From now until spring, farms from Mexico to Chile to Argentina that grow organic food for the United States market are enjoying their busiest season.

“People are now buying from a global commodity market, and they have to be skeptical even when the label says ‘organic’ — that doesn’t tell people all they need to know,” said Frederick L. Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He said some large farms that have qualified as organic employed environmentally damaging practices, like planting only one crop, which is bad for soil health, or overtaxing local freshwater supplies.

Many growers and even environmental groups in Mexico defend the export-driven organic farming, even as they acknowledge that more than a third of the aquifers in southern Baja are categorized as overexploited by the Mexican water authority. With sophisticated irrigation systems and shade houses, they say, farmers are becoming more skilled at conserving water. They are focusing new farms in “microclimates” near underexploited aquifers, such as in the shadow of a mountain, said Fernando Frías, a water specialist with the environmental group Pronatura Noroeste.

They also point out that the organic business has transformed what was once a poor area of subsistence farms and where even the low-paying jobs in the tourist hotels and restaurants in nearby Cabo San Lucas have become scarcer during the recession.

To carry the Agriculture Department’s organic label on their produce, farms in the United States and abroad must comply with a long list of standards that prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers, hormones and pesticides, for example. But the checklist makes few specific demands for what would broadly be called environmental sustainability, even though the 1990 law that created the standards was intended to promote ecological balance and biodiversity as well as soil and water health.

Experts agree that in general organic farms tend to be less damaging to the environment than conventional farms. In the past, however, “organic agriculture used to be sustainable agriculture, but now that is not always the case,” said Michael Bomford, a scientist at Kentucky State University who specializes in sustainable agriculture. He added that intense organic agriculture had also put stress on aquifers in California.

Some organic standard setters are beginning to refine their criteria so that organic products better match their natural ideals. Krav, a major Swedish organic certification program, allows produce grown in greenhouses to carry its “organic” label only if the buildings use at least 80 percent renewable fuel, for example. And last year the Agriculture Department’s National Organic Standards Board revised its rules to require that for an “organic milk” label, cows had to be at least partly fed by grazing in open pastures rather than standing full time in feedlots.

John Bellamy Foster on the ecological catastrophe we are headed towards, thanks to capitalism:
Fundamental to the ecological critique of capitalism, I believe, is what world-historian William McNeill called the law of “the conservation of catastrophe.” For McNeill, who applied his “law” to environmental crisis in particular, “catastrophe is the underside of the human condition—a price we pay for being able to alter natural balances and to transform the face of the earth through collective effort and the use of tools.” The better we become at altering and supposedly controlling nature, he wrote, the more vulnerable human society becomes to catastrophes that “recur perpetually on an ever-increasing scale as our skills and knowledge grow.” The potential for catastrophe is thus not only conserved, but it can be said to be cumulative, and reappears in an evermore colossal form in response to our growing transformation of the world around us.

In the age of climate change and other global planetary threats McNeill’s thesis on the conservation of catastrophe deserves close consideration. Rather than treating it as a universal aspect of the human condition, however, this dynamic needs to be understood in historically specific terms, focusing on the tendency toward the conservation of catastrophe under historical capitalism. The issue then becomes one of understanding how the exploitation of nature under the regime of capital has led over time to the accumulation of catastrophe. As Marx explained, it is necessary, in any critique of capitalism, to understand not only the enormous productive force generated by capital, but also “the negative, i.e. destructive side” of its interaction with the environment, “from the point of view of natural science.”


Aside from the presumed magic of the market itself, and moral claims as to “the greening of corporations,” [“sustainable capitalism”] is supposed to be achieved by means of a black box of technological wonders. Implicit in all such views is the notion that capitalism can be made sustainable, without altering its accumulation or economic growth imperative and without breaking with the dominant social relations. The exponential growth of the system ad infinitum is possible, we are told, while simultaneously generating a sustainable relation to the planet. This of course runs up against what Herman Daly has called the Impossibility Theorem: If the whole world were to have an ecological footprint the size of the United States we would need multiple planets. The idea that such a development process can persist permanently on a single planet (and indeed that we are not at this point already confronting earthly limits) is of course an exercise in delusion, bordering on belief in the supernatural.

“Capitalism,” as the great environmental economist K. William Kapp once wrote, is “an economy of unpaid costs.” It can persist and even prosper only insofar as it is able to externalize its costs on the mass of the population and the surrounding environment. Whenever the destruction is too severe the system simply seeks to engineer another spatial fix. Yet, a planetary capitalism is from this standpoint a contradiction in terms: it means that there is nowhere finally to externalize the social and environmental costs of capitalist destruction (we cannot ship our toxic waste into outer space!), and no external resources to draw upon in the face of the enormous squandering of resources inherent to the system (we can’t solve our problems by mining the moon!).


[T]he continued pursuit of Keynes’s convenient lie over the last eight decades has led to a world far more polarized and beset with contradictions than he could have foreseen. It is a world prey to the enormous unintended consequences of accumulation without limits: namely, global economic stagnation, financial crisis, and planetary ecological destruction. Keynes, though aware of some of the negative economic aspects of capitalist production, had no real understanding of the ecological perils—of which scientists had already long been warning. Today these perils are impossible to overlook.

Faced with impending ecological catastrophe, it is more necessary than ever to abandon Keynes’s convenient lie and espouse the truth: that foul is foul and fair is fair. Capitalism, the society of “après moi le déluge!” is a system that fouls its own nest—both the human-social conditions and the wider natural environment on which it depends. The accumulation of capital is at the same time accumulation of catastrophe, not only for a majority of the world’s people, but living species generally. Hence, nothing is fairer—more just, more beautiful, and more necessary—today than the struggle to overthrow the regime of capital and to create a system of substantive equality and sustainable human development; a socialism for the twenty-first century.

Also from the same issue of Monthly Review, after detailing the many crises of capitalism — specifically as driven by the rise of so-called finance capitalism — Marxist geographer Dick Peet argues for a democratic socialist alternative:
David Harvey has argued that ownership (share holders) and management (CEOs) of capitalist enterprises have fused together, as upper management is increasingly paid with stock options.2 Raising the price of its stock becomes the objective of corporate operations. Productive corporations compete by generating rapid increases in the price of the corporation’s stock, immediately through gimmicks and trickery, but more basically through firing workers, moving production, and raiding pension funds. Corporations heavily involved in production—automobile or steel makers, for example—have become increasingly financial in orientation, diversifying into credit, insurance, real estate, etc. Harvey says that all of this is connected to the burst of activity in an increasingly unregulated, and rapidly globalized, financial sector which is engaged in a process that he describes, similarly to Randy Martin,3 as “the financialization of everything”—meaning control of all areas of the economy by finance. The tremendous economic power of the new entrepreneurial-financial class enables vast influence over the political process. As John Bellemy Foster and Hannah Holleman put it, “the financialization of U.S. capitalism over the last four decades has been accompanied by a dramatic and probably long-lasting shift in the location of the capitalist class, a growing proportion of which now derives its wealth from finance as opposed to production. This growing dominance of finance can be seen today in the inner corridors of state power.”

Financialization has involved increasingly exotic forms of financial instruments and the growth of a shadow-banking system, off the balance sheets of the banks. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 symbolized the almost complete deregulation of a financial sector that has become complex, opaque, and ungovernable.


[T]he present crises in the economy and the state could be lessened (for real, long-term solutions of course even more drastic changes would be needed) by taking money and power away from the financial elite. This could be done right now. Incomes could be redistributed through the taxation system—the state could tax the rich, subsidize social services for the poor, and pay off the deficit. As the financial crisis of the last few years has shown, a lot less money going to the super rich would dampen their speculative excess and stabilize the economy. More money coursing through the social economy, through the media of education and health care, would produce a saner, steadier, and more controllable system. What is ethical can also be good for the economy. Yet in the latest act of this awful dilemma, reacting to the recession caused by finance capital’s reckless speculation, the neoliberal state is imposing sanctions—not on the speculators, but on the hardworking people whose taxes bailed out the financial system! Austerity is punishment for the crimes of the wealthy, but is imposed on everyone but the culprits.

At the present time even practical arguments like this, however, are considered out of bounds as viable political solutions by “responsible spokespersons.” As societies decline, silliness rises. This is not an accident of history. When you cannot mention, let alone debate, sensible solutions to societal problems, then the politics of distraction is all that is left. Fiddling While Rome Burns becomes Motorcycling While America Disintegrates. Sarah Palin is a structural necessity. Politics becomes a game of appearances and deceptions (for example, the Romney candidacy). Resolving finance capitalism’s dilemmas would require state redirection of income distribution, investment, and economic development. This would mean at least a new and stronger version of democratic socialism. Otherwise known by the S word.

Umair Haque reminds us of a point many have made in the past half-century since the rise of the Kuznets' Gospel of GDP: there's more to human well-being than most welfare economists are willing to measure:
[T]he state of the Common Wealth is in crisis. In terms of an authentically good life, we're going nowhere fast. The rev counter is buzzing, but the speedometer's needle is barely moving. We're very busy, but we're not better for it.

How would a better metric than GDP help us solve this conundrum? A balance sheet makes it possible to distinguish between "good" and "bad" income, income earned through reinvestment or by selling yesterday's capital assets. It's as if we're pawning our stocks of higher-order capital — whether social, intellectual, or emotional — for cash in hand today, but the consequence of such real underinvestment is that we're left with fewer, poorer assets with which to pioneer opportunities and enjoy higher standards of living tomorrow--whether denominated in jobs, net worth, income, meaning, or fulfillment.

So long, Australia, it's been good to know you:
In the past year – one of the hottest on record – extreme weather has battered almost every corner of the planet. There have been devastating droughts in China and India, unprecedented floods and wildfires in the United States, and near-record ice melts in the Arctic. Yet the prosperous nations of the world have failed to take action to reduce the risk of climate change, in part because people in prosperous nations think they're invulnerable. They're under the misapprehension that, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Tom Schelling puts it, "Global warming is a problem that is going to primarily affect future generations of poor people." To see how foolish this reasoning is, one need only look at Australia, a prosperous nation that also happens to be right in the cross hairs of global warming. "Sadly, it's probably too late to save much of it," says Joe Romm, a leading climate advocate who served as assistant energy secretary in the Clinton administration.

This is not to say that the entire continent will sink beneath the waves anytime soon. What is likely to vanish – or be transformed beyond recognition – are many of the things we think of when we think of Australia: the barrier reef, the koalas, the sense of the country as a land of almost limitless natural resources. Instead, Australia is likely to become hotter, drier and poorer, fractured by increasing tensions over access to water, food and energy as its major cities are engulfed by the rising seas.

To climate scientists, it's no surprise that Australia would feel the effects of climate change so strongly, in part because it has one of the world's most variable climates. "One effect of increasing greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere is to amplify existing climate signals," says Karoly. "Regions that are dry get drier, and regions that are wet get wetter. If you have a place like Australia that is already extreme, those extremes just get more pronounced." Adding to Australia's vulnerability is its close connection with the sea. Australia is the only island continent on the planet, which means that changes caused by planet-warming pollution – warmer seas, which can drive stronger storms, and more acidic oceans, which wreak havoc on the food chain – are even more deadly here.

How bad could it get? A recent study by MIT projects that without "rapid and massive action" to cut carbon pollution, the Earth's temperature could soar by nine degrees this century. "There are no analogies in human history for a temperature jump of that size in such a short time period," says Tony McMichael, an epidemiologist at Australian National University. The few times in human history when temperatures fell by seven degrees, he points out, the sudden shift likely triggered a bubonic plague in Europe, caused the abrupt collapse of the Moche civilization in Peru and reduced the entire human race to as few as 1,000 breeding pairs after a volcanic eruption blocked out the sun some 73,000 years ago. "We think that because we are a technologically sophisticated society, we are less vulnerable to these kinds of dramatic shifts in climate," McMichael says. "But in some ways, because of the interconnectedness of our world, we are more vulnerable."

With nine degrees of warming, computer models project that Australia will look like a disaster movie. Habitats for most vertebrates will vanish. Water supply to the Murray-Darling Basin will fall by half, severely curtailing food production. Rising sea levels will wipe out large parts of major cities and cause hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage to coastal homes and roads. The Great Barrier Reef will be reduced to a pile of purple bacterial slime. Thousands of people will die from heat waves and other extreme weather events, as well as mosquito-borne infections like dengue fever. Depression and suicide will become even more common among displaced farmers and Aborigines. Dr. James Ross, medical director for Australia's Remote Area Health Corps, calls climate change "the number-one challenge for human health in the 21st century."

And all this doesn't even hint at the political complexities Australia will face in a hotter world, including an influx of refugees from poorer climate-ravaged nations. ("If you want to understand Australian politics," says Anthony Kitchener, an Australian entrepreneur, "the first thing you have to understand is our fear of yellow hordes from the north.") Then there are the economic costs. The Queensland floods earlier this year caused $30 billion in damage and forced the government to implement a $1.8 billion "flood tax" to help pay for reconstruction. As temperatures rise, so will the price tag. "We can't afford to spend 10 percent of our GDP building sea walls and trying to adapt to climate change," says Ian Goodwin, a climate scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney.

What happens to stolen bikes? Outside investigates the fascinating economy of stolen bicycles:
With the rise of the bicycle age has come a rise in bicycle robbery: FBI statistics claim that 204,000 bicycles were stolen nationwide in 2010, but those are only the documented thefts. Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle advocacy group in New York City, estimates the unreported thefts at four or five times that—more than a million bikes a year. New York alone probably sees more than 100,000 bikes stolen annually. Whether in big biking cities like San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, or in sport-loving suburbs and small towns, theft is “one of the biggest reasons people don’t ride bikes,” Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, told me. Although bike commuting has increased by 100 percent in New York City during the past seven years, the lack of secure bike parking was ranked alongside bad drivers and traffic as a primary deterrent to riding more. It’s all about the (stolen) bike; even Lance Armstrong had his custom time-trial Trek nicked from the team van in 2009 after a race in California. Not every bike is that precious, but according to figures from the FBI and the National Bike Registry, the value of stolen bikes is as much as $350 million a year.

That’s a lot of bike. Stolen bicycles have become a solvent in America’s underground economy, a currency in the world of drug addicts and petty thieves. Bikes are portable and easily converted to cash, and they usually vanish without a trace—in some places, only 5 percent are even reported stolen. Stealing one is routinely treated as a misdemeanor, even though, in the age of electronic derailleurs and $5,000 coffee-shop rides, many bike thefts easily surpass the fiscal definition of felony, which varies by state but is typically under the thousand-dollar mark. Yet police departments are reluctant to pull officers from robberies or murder investigations to hunt bike thieves. Even when they do, DAs rarely prosecute the thieves the police bring in.

Paul Krugman highlights Alan Krueger's recent speech on inequality and its consequences (.pdf) and points specifically to what Krueger calls “The Great Gatsby Curve,” indicating the relationship between increased inequality and limited intergenerational socioeconomic mobility. (Slides of Krueger's speech here (.ppt), video here.) The speech gets another mention in Krugman's latest column:
Last week Alan Krueger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave an important speech about income inequality, presenting a relationship he dubbed the “Great Gatsby Curve.” Highly unequal countries, he showed, have low mobility: the more unequal a society is, the greater the extent to which an individual’s economic status is determined by his or her parents’ status. And as Mr. Krueger pointed out, this relationship suggests that America in the year 2035 will have even less mobility than it has now, that it will be a place in which the economic prospects of children largely reflect the class into which they were born.
Krugman also notes the disturbing racialized aspect of the income gap:
In the 1960s it was widely assumed that ending overt discrimination would improve the economic as well as legal status of minority groups. And at first this seemed to be happening. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s substantial numbers of black families moved into the middle class, and even into the upper middle class; the percentage of black households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution nearly doubled.

But around 1980 the relative economic position of blacks in America stopped improving. Why? An important part of the answer, surely, is that circa 1980 income disparities in the United States began to widen dramatically, turning us into a society more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.

Think of the income distribution as a ladder, with different people on different rungs. Starting around 1980, the rungs began moving ever farther apart, adversely affecting black economic progress in two ways. First, because many blacks were still on the lower rungs, they were left behind as income at the top of the ladder soared while income near the bottom stagnated. Second, as the rungs moved farther apart, the ladder became harder to climb.

The Times recently reported on a well-established finding that still surprises many Americans when they hear about it: although we still see ourselves as the land of opportunity, we actually have less intergenerational economic mobility than other advanced nations. That is, the chances that someone born into a low-income family will end up with high income, or vice versa, are significantly lower here than in Canada or Europe.

Multifunctional landscapes are dependent on diversity. (Guy Midgeley puts this new research in context.)

Some 50 years later, the Dictionary of American Regional English is finally complete.

Conducting is hard.

Carl Zimmer profiles Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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