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Commentary: Reconciling Poverty, Sustainability, and the Financial Crisis

by Christopher Flavin

The following is adapted from a speech given by Worldwatch Institute President Christopher Flavin at a high-level United Nations event on September 25, 2008.

I want to commend the UN Secretary-General for his decision to focus on environmental sustainability as one of the three cross-cutting pillars of the Millennium Development Goals. Environmental sustainability may have seemed peripheral to meeting human needs when these goals were adopted in 2000. But the world has changed.

The health of the world's ecological systems will be decisive in determining our ability to meet all of the Millennium Development Goals. Environmental sustainability is not just another policy goal. The human economy is wholly contained within the global biosphere-and if the biosphere's productivity is undermined, the human economy will suffer.

Just as some parts of our economy have accumulated unsustainable fiscal debts, the global economy has accrued a massive ecological debt - a debt that must be settled if we are to sustain economic development and meet the needs of the 1.4 billion human beings who are still mired in severe poverty.

Today, our planet supports 6.5 billion human beings. Those numbers are growing by 70 million people each year, and global consumption levels are soaring, as China and other countries enter the consumer age. The economic model that has supported unprecedented economic progress for several hundred million people in industrial countries over the past half century cannot possibly meet the growing needs of the more than 8 billion people who will live on this planet by the middle of this century.

The events of the past year have provided graphic reminders that collapsing economic systems have real human impacts-and that the world's poor, who are most directly dependent on natural resources, will suffer first and suffer most:

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In Haiti, the impact of three large hurricanes this summer was magnified by the vast deforestation that has left millions of people vulnerable to floods and landslides.
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In West Africa, the decline of local fisheries has left thousands of poor families without a livelihood and in some cases with no source of affordable protein.
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Across large areas of the Indian subcontinent, diminishing supplies of fresh water are undermining food production and leaving people with inadequate drinking water.

And from the Arctic to the Equator, the world's climate is changing rapidly - and undermining ecological systems on every continent, from forests to oceans and fresh water. Many scientists believe that a dangerous climate tipping point may be near-unleashing a runaway greenhouse effect that would feed on itself for centuries to come.

The bottom line is clear: the inefficient, carbon-intensive, throwaway economy that was so successful in an earlier era is not suited to today's world. Our planet in now in mortal danger of an ecological collapse whose human impact would dwarf the financial collapse the world is now seeking to avoid.

Stabilizing the world's climate and dramatically reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is the central challenge of our generation. Building a new energy system is essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, a fact that is reinforced by the devastating impact that rising prices for oil and other fossil fuels have had on the world's poor in recent years. These fuels are no longer sufficiently abundant to provide the reliable, affordable energy supplies needed to fuel economic development.

It is therefore urgent that we build a sustainable low-carbon economy that meets all human needs and is in balance with the world's natural resources. This effort could jumpstart a powerful new engine of economic development, creating thousands of industries and millions of jobs in rich and poor countries alike.

In the eight years since the Millennium Development Goals were launched, the world has come a long way in its understanding of the fundamental importance of environmental sustainability to human well-being. It is time for world leaders to embrace this understanding and begin building a green economy for the 21st century.

Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming report, Low-Carbon Energy: The Way Forward, will be released in November.

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Comments

For a long time, I have been haunted by the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) that are emblazoned in a sonnet about Ozymandias.

” I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away. ” —Shelley

What was the “colossal wreck” this “king of kings” observed and how had it happened? What caused the destruction of the world?

The calamity Ozymandias witnessed may not have been more or less than the incredible consequences of human greed having exceeded limits to its growth. That is to say, the adamant and relentless greediness of kings and self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe precipitated the gigantic, distinctly human-driven catastrophe to which The King of kings makes reference.

A billion members of the human family exist on resources valued at less than one dollar per day. Africa is suffering from “slow drip” problems. Europe is getting warmer fast. Arctic ice is retreating and the arctic coast of Alaska is eroding.

Where are the new ideas, the financial backing, and the innovations needed to address these problems? There are tens of trillions of dollars in the global human economy. Where has all that money gone?
The front page of the NYTimes tells the family of humanity that we are on the verge of a global economic catastrophe. Are the taxpayers, acting alone, to become responsible for the problems now presented to the human community by the greed of a small group of rich and powerful people worldwide?
Why are an astonishingly small number of greedy people, holding hundreds of billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains from what are now recognizable as patently unsustainable business models and Ponzi-like financial schemes, not taking responsibility for their avarice?

Who are the people behind the mess we see splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world this morning? Perhaps they need to be named, shamed and held to account.

Some greedy people are easy to identify. They are ones who have proclaimed themselves “Masters of the Universe” or Bohemians or the Greedy Boys of Greenwich or the Bilderbergers or members of The Trilateral Commission or the many too many outrageously enriched ‘experts’ and politicians who say and do anything to enhance wealth and power of themselves and their benefactors.

At least to me, it appears the problems in the global economy we are seeing today are the results of greed having reached its limits or, to put it another way, having “hit the wall” of unsustainability. That is to say, greediness of self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe and their minions has reached the point of greed’s unsustainability. The global economy can no longer support the conspicuous, patently unsustainable behavior of a small segment of the family of humanity.

Yes, definitely yes, something new and different needs to be done. Bold action is needed; but, more of the same, old business-as-usual behavior appears insufficient. Limits need to be placed on patently unsustainable behavior. People who are responsible for the global economic mess need to account for their behavior.

The family of humanity is not responsible for the world’s economic mess; but at the moment taxpayers worldwide are being held solely accountable. There is something not quite right about such unfair and inequitable circumstances.


Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001
http://sustainabilitysoutheast.org/index.php


Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 2 Oct 08

Can Sustainable Cities Save The Planet?

By Walter Libby

http://theendpoint.blogspot.com/


Can sustainable cities save the planet? This is a good question and it deserves a good answer. But a more relevant question is, can sustainable cities save the United States? Our rising unemployment rate in the global economy has finally caught up with us—we are out of bubbles and are now a nation at risk. With nine straight months of job losses and a looming financial crisis, our prospects look grim—despite the efforts being made to prop up our financial system.

The problem is we are in liquidity trap. Here, despite low interest rates, the infusion of new blood, the cash that is being pumped into banks will just sit in their vaults as recession forces consumers to cut back on spending forcing firms to cut back on production, investments and workers perpetuating the cycle pushing the economy ever deeper into crisis.

The question now becomes, how do we get out the trap? We can’t look to a turn around in residential construction. But we can look to a turn around in our thinking as we shift from urban sprawl to the development of new cities designed along sustainable lines. So together with their development and the investments in renewable energy they will begin to pull us out of the trap.
The advent of peak oil has convinced venture capitalists to get busy in saving the planet. Now we have to sell the idea of new cities to investors, developers, and the people, and that requires a model that captures their imagination and investment dollars. So following in the footsteps of Ebenezer Howard, here’s how I see cities of tomorrow: clusters of neighborhoods (linked by elevated transportation arteries shared by electric vehicles, bikes, pedestrians and rapid transit systems) will form the city. These neighborhoods are large terraced multi-storied structures sheltering thousands. Here their terraces are reserved for greenhouses and homes and their centers for factories and fully controlled-environment farms.
So, as you walk out into your neighborhood you encounter not hallways but wide walkways, allies and breezeways lined with trees and plants, schools, hospitals, libraries, theaters, businesses, shops, and restaurants—all within walking distance, or a short elevator ride. And when you go to the first floor, at ground level you find barns (for pigs, beef and dairy cows, and chickens that are harvested next door) opening onto natural habitant mixed with organic farms, orchards, parks, playgrounds, and golf courses. Here, instead of sending our table and produce straps, our unwanted leftovers, dry bread, spoiled fruit to landfills, we recycle them to neighborhood barnyards or to community organic orchards and gardens.
Once there is a sufficient population, a larger central city is built. This is the cultural center of the whole. Here you have universities, the larger hospitals, museums, aquariums, zoos, sports stadiums, theaters for the performing arts, large central parks, plazas, street performers, and so on.
New cities are going to play a significant part in our economic recovery. And they are not going to be connected by super highways but by railroads carrying passengers, cars, trucks, commodities, construction equipment and freight.
New cities, as an alternative to unsustainable urban sprawl, by itself is a strong selling point. Add to that greater efficiency, lower taxes, and a mix of town and country. But its best pitch to the captains of industry is that they are necessary for our national security and confidence in general—for Wall Street and Main Street, and for those in the world who doubt that America can resolve its economic crisis, our ability to bootstrap our economy.
Yet, while the development of new cities will rev up our economy structural problems still plague the global economy—it’s unbalanced and so unsustainable as witnessed by our mounting trade deficits. And given that the financial crisis was brought on by our loss of jobs to the global economy (the housing bubble was the result of the Fed lowering interest rates to rock bottom in a desperate and vain attempt to avoid recession following the collapse of the dot.com bubble), we have to ponder the question, is capitalism collapsing? And this poses challenges not only for America and democracy in general, but for communist China, Russia and Venezuela as well.
China, having taken the capitalist road, has pretty much captured the means production as multinationals, in a race to the bottom, in a race to China to beat their competitors, have left in their wake socioeconomic crisis in their respective countries—notably in the U.S. In the process China has pretty much become the factory to the world. And in doing so have created a contradiction in the global economy—who are going to buy its products? This is a contradiction that threatens China.
And Russia and Venezuela, as oil prices plummet with a global collapse, face economic ruin—along with the rest of the oil producing countries. We need a new global order, a new world agenda.
Mikhail Gorbachev has stated such in The Search For A New Beginning: Developing A New Civilization.
Essentially, Gorbachev is touting sustainable development. Yet, he says “It has been the fond hope of many that the end of the Cold War would liberate the international community to work together to avert threats and work in a spirit of cooperation in addressing the dangerous problems that affect the world as a whole. But, despite the numerous summit meetings, conferences, congresses, negotiations, and agreements, there does not appear to have been any tangible progress… Between the old order and the one lies a period of transition that we must go through—moving toward a new structure of international relations marked by cooperating, interacting, and taking advantage of new opportunities. What we are seeing today, however, looks rather like a world disorder.
It is my belief that today’s policy makers lack a necessary sense of perspective and the ability to evaluate the consequences of their actions. What is absolutely necessary is a critical reassessment of the views and approaches that currently lie at the basis of political thinking and a new combination of player to envision and carry us through to the next phase of human development.”
The next phase of human development is the development of new sustainable cities throughout the world. As a start we should also pursue the moral equivalent of war. The industrialized nations should form an economic coalition to assist the Palestinians, the nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other nations in turmoil, in the development of new cities. Peace through prosperity.
The idea of cooperation didn’t begin with Gorbachev, it began with the atom bomb—war was out and cooperation was in. So after World War II, The World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) came into existence. Their combined mission is to foster economic growth, high levels of employment, while providing temporary loans and financial assistance to relieve debt.
While that mission remains the same its focus should now be on the development of sustainable cities. The world faces an energy crisis as the production of oil peaks and then declines, as well a looming water crisis exacerbated by the increasing threat of droughts. Their mission should be now to focus on the development of renewable energy to power control-environment farms. And then add on the neighborhoods.
The thing is it may well beyond the scope of the World Bank and the IMF to implement. Therefore we need a summit meeting of the industrialized nations to forge a consensus along with working out just how this is to be accomplished.
That said, however, the first condition of the summit should be that loans or direct investments tied to the development of natural resources in the developing countries require that their leaders will channel their revenues into the development of sustainable projects while ensuring the workers receive wages sufficient for the necessities of life along with low interest loans to purchase their new homes —this means that the enlightened nations will only support democracies and work together to convince dictators and corrupt officials to rethink their positions.
There is also something that all nations should consider: that it is in their best interest that they shift to a global economy where trade is no longer a zero-sum game, but a sustainable end game where everyone wins--it's about cooperation and balancing trade
There is a huge amount of work (enough to keep us all busy) to make the transition to would-be sustainable cities throughout the world, and that requires that nations with a trade surplus, who are shifting their economies (their workers) to the development of new cities, turn to those nations with a trade imbalance--an imbalance in employment--take their foreign reserves and invest in or directly trade for whatever is necessary to facilitate and expedite the building of their cities.
Thinking that pressuring China to revaluate its currency as a solution is wrong-headed. It will only create unemployment for China and inflation for others.
And for those who think that the conflict Marxism and liberal democracy as inevitable, they should think again—think about where sustainable are heading.
Sustainable cities are on built on three legs: they have a source of renewable energy, produce their own food, and have the ability to manufacture their own necessary consumer goods. Today we have the technology for the first two and eventually tomorrow’s technology will replace low-wage workers with robots as the final assemblers in fully automated factories--automated factories that can be scaled to provide the necessary consumer goods on a local level—eliminating middlemen and transportation costs.
When that day comes their will no be longer a struggle over the means of production and we’ll find ourselves at the end of history—the end of the historical ideological battle between liberal democracy and Marxism. And when that day comes we’ll also see the world’s population stabilizing just as in the industrial nations populations have stabilized (the U.S. the notable exception—but that works as it allows us build new cities) as they modernized and urbanized.
Here, Marxism finds its final resting place in the dustbin of history. Seeing history as written in stone—seeing conflict as the final solution—is a bad idea.
On other hand it is democracy, freewill, that puts forward the ideas to meet the challenges that a fast changing presents. But here too we have an ideology based on self-interest that is false and cowardly. Self-interest rightly understood is a collective-free-market-will that puts aside the issues that divides us and focuses on the ideas that insure the integrity of whole. The “invisible hand” as it guides ”the butcher, the baker, the brewer” has to be replaced with the hand of reason—hopefully enlightening those who subsist on corruption and greed
Humanity was conceived ignorance. As such Gorbachev reflecting on the past tells us ”Conflicts and wars have been an organic part of history.” Another way of saying it is that “there will be trials and tribulations.”
So we have choice, on both sides, continued conflict, continuing ignorance, or emerging cooperation. If conflict remains in place there’s another determinism to be considered—the historical determinism of weapons—best expressed by the dialectics of Marxism. The United States (the thesis) was followed by the rise of the Soviet Union (the antithesis) who together cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means destruction and exchange—nuclear weapons and ICBM’s. Eventually their numbers will reach a critical mass, and a great leap occurs, leading not to a synthesis, but the victory of matter over mind, the end of all history. This was “the backbone of perestroika.” It is why the Soviet Union was allowed to collapse. It is why Gorbachev posits a new world order. As I see it, a new world order where sustainable cities mark the beginning of a new epoch that not only saves the planet, but also saves us our from ourselves.
Footnote
Controlled-environment farming: In a world facing the challenges of severe droughts and extreme weather, looming worldwide water shortages, along with rising oil costs and rising food prices controlled-environment farms are being touted as the answer. While there are variations of indoor farming, they all are pretty much based on hydroponics and tout the same economic efficiencies. They all can be located within cities or neighborhoods. They all run on electricity, require no pesticides, herbicides nor fertilizers (all derived from fossil fuels). They produce crops year around, and depending on the technology, use from one-tenth to one-twentieth the water of conventional farms. They not only use less water, they can use recycled water from the surrounding communities.
One up and running venture was the Phytofarm (re: Discover magazine December 1988, The Green Machine: Indoor Farming). This is a fully enclosed farm fed by artificial lighting where one acre can produce 100 times the yield of conventional farms (day or night). And while it was geared to produce leafy greens and herbs, there is practically nothing that cannot be grown indoors—albeit it would require a shift to growing some food in composted earth pots. Yet, while the project had a successful run, producing sought-after high quality crops, for a number of years, in the end it lost out due to high-energy costs and closed its doors in the early 1990s.
Today, vertical farms are being touted along the same sustainable lines. Essentially these are high rises with greenhouses stacked on one another. Yet, they have not attracted any investors and so their technology remains in doubt. But phytofarms are a proven technology and they too can be stacked on one another. And they can start producing with the completion of the first floor. As such, the investment here can play its role in a sustainable economic recovery.
This article can be freely quoted or paraphrased by anyone as long as they acknowledge the author.



Posted by: walter libby on 10 Oct 08

This was a really great speech and I think a lot of progress has been made since it was given. I would just like to point out that while we are having financial problems, part of the environmental solution is making capital widely available and spreading the risk of investments. Pooled securities have done that and it really was a brilliant invention. We will learn from our mistakes and this will be one of the things that moves us towards a more sustainable future. It goes against the grain and popular media today, but I would argue that it's true.

Thanks,
Rob

www.greenertrends.com


Posted by: Rob on 13 Oct 08



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