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Letter from Tällberg: 350? Well, Poo
Alan AtKisson, 27 Jun 08


The former President of Costa Rica, Jose Maria Figueres, has just congratulated another Latin American leader (a government minister in Equador -- her name is not in the program) who was recounting a success story that had lifted farmers in her country from one dollar per day to $3.50 per day in income.

"Your farmers," says Figueres, "have just surpassed the income of a European cow. They earn roughly $3.00 per day, in subsidies from the European Union."

Routinely, it is quips like this, pointing out the absurdity and intensity of inequality in the world, that gets applause here at Tällberg, much more than global visions or calls to limit atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. Disclosure: I am a signer on the call for 350 that was initiated by Tällberg Foundation and others and published as a full page ad in the international press on 23 June 2008.

There seem to be a number of no-shows this year, but the replacement speakers are terrific. Dirk Elsen of the Dutch NGO SNV is talking about poo, for example. Seriously. He notes, "If you go to these small villages in Equador or Africa and say 350 ppm, people do not get very excited." Instead, they help them build waste digesters, which turn cow manure or humanure (that's Joe Jenkins' clever coinage) into biogas. "That gets their attention," he says. Not only do they get a saleable product and/or energy source, but the women save 2-3 hours per day in time, which they would otherwise have to spend in gathering (unsustainable) firewood. And they are linking the spread of these digesters to the global carbon market through the Clean Development Mechanism. Real poo generates real money, reduces carbon emissions, and increases the stock of human time in the world (see my previous posting, "Running Out of Time".)

And the rate of return on the investments to create these digesters? 40-80 percent. Stories like this also draw applause.

The Secretary-General of Civicus, Ingrid Srinath, gets a lot of applause of this kind, but she doesn't want it. She has only seven minutes to tell us about global civil society, and "the more you clap, the less time I have." She tells us about her family's maid. "I am one of the 8 percent of Indian women who have a college education," she reflects. "And when I was 18, my parents hired a new maid. She and I were exactly the same age. And I realized that it was not my parents who had paid for my education, with their hard work and taxes. It was this girl. Because the government subsidies that financed my university degree and MBA came at the cost of her getting even a primary education." She closes with a reflection on the so-called "Bottom of the Pyramid." The poor, she says, are realizing that they do not need they charity of the rich. "But they do need justice." Applause. Srinath had many other pearls of wisdom, which she crammed into her seven minutes. To hear them, and if you want a 'very' exact quote, you should watch the Tallberg webcasts. My memory is not as good as the world's computer servers.)

"OK, I have one more minute," says the head of the Hunger Project, Jill Lester. She uses it to remind us that the number of children in hunger has increased because of the recent food price crisis (caused in part, you will remember, by the increase in biofuel production). One theme of this year's Forum is the search "Common Sense." Isn't it Common Sense, says Lester, that we should not be allowing this happen?


In the afternoon, I pop into the sustainable biofuels design workshop. This is an area where I have both personal and professional interest (see "Biofuels: Driving in the Wrong Direction?". I am dipping in to this dialogue after the group assembled here has done nearly a day of work. There are well-organized diagrams and charts all over the wall, and a skilled facilitator walks me through what's happened. I feel "up to speed" within 10 minutes.

And fortunately, there has been serious work done here. The conversation is substantive -- and best of all, heated. Some of Europe's key actors on biofuels are here. They do not quickly agree; indeed they argue. They are arguing over what the right criteria for sustainability must be, a framework for the production of biofuels in a sustainable manner that also meets projected demand growth through 2030. Must all biofuel development include extra social development programs? (New fossil fuel development does not usually get saddled with such requirements.) Is a commitment to biofuel going to siphon resources (capital, talent, land) away from other innovation pathways? What about equity-and-technology issues around the vehicles themselves, in places like Africa? Will Africans drive ethanol cars, or will their ethanol all be exported to Europe so they can drive around on old fossil-diesel vehicles?

"We had that solved," says one, "except that Africans drive on the wrong side of the road. Otherwise we could send used Brazilian cars to Africa."

Finally, I have the feeling that something concrete will come out of the formal side of the Tällberg gathering -- a feeling I had not had up till now. The resolution of these knotty problems, in the form of a draft set of sustainability criteria for biofuels, will be something new, and useful, regardless of where one stands on the issue. These actors will take the draft back to their agencies and companies and ministries. It will be "policy relevant" the day after the Forum.

But it won't be simple. Europe is terribly complicated, we are reminded. (The reminder comes from one of the EU's senior officials.) And that's just Europe, with its reams of regulation and heated debates over taxes and subsidies and whether or not to even be a real Union. On a coffee break, I raise questions about global complications regarding ethanol, food, carbon dioxide etc. to Per Carstedt -- head of Sweden's Bio-Alcohol Fuel Foundation -- and get complicated answers.

Of the many things I hear, perhaps the one concept worth sharing is "choice editing." This is a major piece of whatever it is that needs to happen, but I have never heard of it before. "It's from marketing," we're told. It means just pulling the poor choices, the choices you 'don't' want consumers to make, off the market. It means taking the unsustainable stuff off the shelf -- fuel, food, whatever. High-grading our choices by making only good choice possible.

Choice editing. I think we need a lot more of that.


Barbara Hendricks is singing in the big tent. Soaring, operatic vocals. Then she talks, in a very down to Earth way, about the depression and confusion she feels in the face of all this Big Global Information. "Here are some facts about the world," she says. She shows some slides with data and graphs -- and it is nice to see these familiar numbers and curves shown to us by an African-American-Swedish singer, instead of by an older male European scientist. "These facts are from the CIA, so they must be true," she jokes. The facts are familiar ... but somehow, they look different. We are seeing this information through her eyes. The scale is so great as to cause a kind of nervous laughter in the crowd. And Barbara says, "And why am I sorting my trash? Why should I buy organic eggs?"

Inger Källander starts telling us, showing a simple egg, which looks just so nice and contains all of our food needs except vitamin C ... but then she shows us the energy and environment impacts behind us. Organic food is good for everything and everybody, a cure for everything from global warming to global food shortages ... Meanwhile, Kofi Annan walks in. The King of Sweden rises to meet him ... and then Barbara cuts off Inger in the middle of her talk, just as she is about to tell us about organic agriculture in Uganda. Barbara just walks up to her. "I'm supposed to do this!" she says. She wants to know, should I buy a local product that's not organic, or an organic product from far away? And on and on ...


I am running out of battery power, so I think I'll sign off for the day. If you want to see what happens in the big tent, watch the web. The night is young, here in Sweden. We still have a lot of speeches to hear. Some people will talk too long, and get cut off. Every minute counts here ... and every minute is counted.

Don't forget the Tällberg Bar tonight, we are told.

I am starting to enjoy myself, but I'm counting the minutes till then.

Photo credit:The Tallberg Foundation

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Not all Africans drive on the wrong side of the road. I'm not sure what side Brazilians drive on, but there's both right-side (Rwanda, Ethiopia) and left-side (Uganda, Kenya) driving countries in Africa - so that particular solution is still viable.

Posted by: Christopher Leinonen on 30 Jun 08

"Choice editing" is a choice phrase.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 Jul 08



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