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Keeping Progress Once You Have It
Jeremy Faludi, 9 Jun 05

We talk a lot about changing the world for the better; but once you're successful, how do you keep it from changing back later, when people aren't up in arms anymore? Today's BBC has an article telling how twenty years ago, 90% of cars made in Brazil ran on ethanol (which was also produced in Brazil). By 1997 it had slipped to 0.06%, but is now back up to almost 50%, according to the Brazilian newspaper Folha (sorry, Portuguese-only article). Paul Krugman's book The Great Unravelingwill tell you more than you want to know about the environmental backsliding going on in the US today. But what can you do to prevent it, or stop it once started?

Here are six ideas, only a few of which get frequent use:

  • Most traditional solutions tend to rely on imposing stricter rules and greater oversight. It's the obvious way, but it can be expensive and bureaucratic.

  • Good public relations can be indispensable. Keep the issue present, and framed the right way, in people's minds. We all know how the spin machine can shred the public's perception of benefits they used to enjoy.

  • Networking progress can leverage it. Getting other "normal" parts of society to depend on a new benefit can entrench it into the normal fabric of society & economy. (For instance, in the US, cars were a useful invention, and then cities started to be designed around car ownership, now making cars extremely hard to give up.)

  • Pushing further progress can protect existing gains, by treating them as today's baseline. This one can be great, but can also lead to severe backlashes which are worse than normal gradual backsliding. It depends mostly on public relations; however, it's almost always useful to have at least some small fringe group pushing further progress.

  • Decentralizing the administration/enforcement of a benefit can protect it from future reversal by a small minority. For instance, California's air quality standards did not get wiped out by the Bush administration because it was under its own jurisdiction, earlier laws had allowed decentralization by letting states' regulations be stricter than federal ones. In general, distributed systems require more widespread approval to implement, but once in place are harder to break. Of course, this is something that you have to think of in advance, while you're building your plan for progress, you can't wait until the backsliding has begun.

  • Self-sustaining economics helps. Regulations/taxes/systems which are seen as financial burdens are constantly attacked. Taxes which are fat enough that governments depend on them, on the other hand, usually survive these attacks well. One of the advantages of carbon markets and the like is that they create ecosystems of progress, not merely static thresholds. In a scenario at the Worldchanging Summit last year, one hypothesis was that early adopters in carbon markets could find it financially rewarding enough among voluntary participants that they could then cause governments to require all competitors to join the markets as well, in order for them to have an even better competitive advantage. Imagine big business leading the charge to a green future. If it sounds impossible, consider that BP and Royal Dutch/Shell are the second- and third-largest energy companies in the world (together bigger than the first, Exxon Mobil), and they have already each made their own internal carbon markets.

  • Whenever we work for a better future, we should keep in our minds how we will prevent our gains from being lost later. After all, that's nominatively what sustainability is. Any other ideas out there, about how to keep it once you've got it?
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    Good topic to raise, Jeremy.

    "Sustainability" is a tricky topic, since one is dealing with different concepts of appropriate time frames for analysis.

    What are we talking about? Relating to this planet in such a way that the human species and a diverse web of interconnected life can live in harmony in perpetuity until the solar system dies?

    I assume that's what it's supposed to mean, though I think we often confound that nearly imponderable amount of time with our limited human lifetimes.

    When we start speaking about regulations, public relations, framing, and the like, it seems that we are dealing with short-term efforts. Recognizing how short one's own life is, and realizing one can't control much, if anything, after one's death, those approaches seem untrustworthy.

    I tend to have most faith in approaches which eventually transform our hearts, that make us aware of how wonderful it is to relate authentically with the life that surrounds us and allows us to live and be conscious. Because if humans will always have the capacity to be evil and/or to destroy, then how can we be sure that evil, destructive people won't, at some point in the future, undo all the progress that so many people may have worked to achieve?

    There has to be, at least for many generations to follow, a transformation of our political, social, and economic systems that allows people to be truly free and loving, and that eventually changes our perceptions to a place where what is right for an individual meshes perfectly with what is right for society and the world.

    It's pretty difficult to explain what I mean, but I guess it's mostly like a situation where all humans may understand that evil and/or destruction is possible, but that to act in such a way doesn't seem wrong, but actually just foolish - to any given individual.

    I mean, such questions also bring up thoughts about the fact that humans (at least as we are now) are almost certainly not the end of the evolutionary chain of life. So, what of any species which may supplant us?

    Perhaps you're thinking much more short-term and brass tacks with your query, so I hope I don't sound like I'm going off the deep end with the above comments.

    Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 9 Jun 05

    Jeremy you touch on an extremely important area for WCers. Not just how to achieve sustainable progress, but how to do it in a way that's future-proof? For the moment forgetting how diverse are the many different views on what sustainable progress is - in conceiving WC'g activities, is there actually a definitive endpoint for success?

    We need to create change that plans for further change. WCers themselves have to be willing to adapt continually in the process. Solutions, whether regulatory, technological, commercial, social or other, are a response to recognised problems of the time, so they inevitably face unanticipated issues. A precautionary principle should be voluntarily applied not just to mainstream science and technology, but to fringe and unconventional WC'g ideas too. WC'g gets bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about upcoming technologies, but what kind of sustainable progress are they likely to bring? If they're another means to achieving an end, then we're back to the core questions at the top.

    I think it's instructive to look at Ivan Illich's ideas on how our institutions eventually consume their original purpose. Sustainable progress needs to be future-proof, not in a static sense of generating specific lasting solutions, but in a dynamic sense that itself leads to further successive, sustainable progress. This needs a pervasive, deep shift in the common mindset, assumptions and typical way of doing things. This feeds from every activity of each individual in all areas. The power of one is backyard changing; when that's networked it has potential to be city / nation / region / world changing.

    Posted by: Janelle on 9 Jun 05

    49.5% of new cars sold in Brazil in May 2005 run on ethanol. It is estimated that 75% of cars produced in Brazil in 2006 will run on ethanol.

    The 0.06% figure is not accurate.

    Posted by: Peter on 9 Jun 05

    Peter: Just because the cars can run on bio-diesel, doesn't mean the fuel itself exists in quantity.

    bio-diesel in brazil has the same problem as any other fuel derived from organic feedstock -

    limited EROEI, meaning excessive amounts of valuable cropland are required to keep cars running,

    In Brazil, sugar cane is farmed by hand - so poor farmers are basically serfs for the big city petrol users,

    The fuel isn't green as such except when using recycled products already produced, like vegetable fryer goop, or perhaps cellulose ethonal to break down non-food parts of food crops.

    Posted by: Jon S. on 9 Jun 05

    Jon: You are correct, bio-diesel does not exist outside university research labs. ETHANOL, on the other hand, is available at any corner gas station.
    Using ethanol in a "dual fuel" (bicombustível) vehicle results in a 30-40% cost saving at the gas pump, explaining the recent increase in production of ethanol and ethanol burning cars.

    49.5% of new cars sold in Brazil in May 2005 run on ethanol. It is estimated that 75% of cars produced in Brazil in 2006 will run on ethanol.

    The 0.06% figure is not accurate.

    In Brazil, sugar cane is CUT by hand - so poor cane cutters are basically serfs, contracted to work on enormous sugar cane plantations owned by the very same families that produce the ethanol.

    The Government subsidises the sugar cane producers to keep the hundred of thousands of cane cutters "employed", while the owner families expand their empires by buying out smaller land holders.

    Government sponsored wealth concentration.

    Posted by: Peter on 10 Jun 05

    Peter is correct, ethanol is a reality since the 70's . Brazil is considered an example of using ethanol as car fuel.

    Last year, the total production of ethanol in Brazil was 15 billions of liters. The plantations are baser on the most advanced techniques. Actually, Brazil is helping other countries developing their sugar cane plantations in order to get ethanol as you can see in these news:

    In fact, ethanol ( or just "alcohol " in Brazil popular language ) provided from sugar cane is cheaper, more powerful and the production process is much more efficient, if we compare with ethanol provided from corn , which is the base of USA ethanol. By "production process", understand, for the same quantity of corn and sugar cane, what is the result, in Liter , of ethanol.
    It’s about couples of months I started reading this site and every time someone talks about Brazil, there are always someone making a post with complete wrong information.
    Brazil is a third world country with LOT many social, political and economic problems, but the few points where this country is good at, can’t be diminished by pre-established and incoherent information.

    Posted by: Ewerton on 10 Jun 05

    Hey, folks, sorry about the misquoted statistic. I've fixed the article.

    That's encouraging, that they're back up to almost 50%!

    Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 10 Jun 05

    Peter claims:

    bio-diesel does not exist outside university research labs.
    I've purchased biodiesel in Iowa and N. Dakota at regular pumps.  People make it at home.  Anyone willing to make such a blatantly wrong statement is probably wrong about many more things.

    I notice that nobody has brought up EROEI.  I doubt that this is a coincidence.

    Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 11 Jun 05

    In BRAZIL - "bio-diesel does not exist outside university research labs."

    "Anyone willing to make such a blatantly wrong statement is probably wrong about many more things."

    Interesting insult!

    Posted by: Peter on 13 Jun 05

    I added a few other thoughts at my blog. This list, and the additions is really useful to me in thinking about sustaining progress on all kinds of fronts. Thanks!

    Posted by: Chris Corrigan on 14 Jun 05



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