Thursday, December 30, 2010

Good news from China

"For years, humans have tried to conquer nature, but in doing so, they themselves became conquered. They lost their connection with the earth. They destroyed the land they were tilling. In Buddhist belief, there are no pesticides, no bad insects, no good ones. There is only imbalance in the world. We must restore that balance." Says Han, a new farmer in China.

As a reaction to the last decades of breakneck growth and environmental destruction, similarly as what happened in western countries in the sixties and seventies perhaps, there is a counter reaction in China with an increased interest in organic food. Also, a number of people, mainly rich, take a step further and go back to the land, start farming. This all according to an article in the Washington Post. Read more. At least some good news at the end of 2010.

(oh my, it feels like the much feared Y2K (if you are below 25 I am sure you have no idea what Y2K means, and I almost forgot it myself, but came across it the other day, and smiled a bit) was just a few years ago. What happened with those 10 years. Someone stole them?).

Even if most people expect nothing good from China and the other BRICs when it comes to the environment, I believe the future of humanity rests in the hands of those rapidly growing economies, for the better and the worse. In Garden Earth, I write:

There will be winners and losers among countries, regions, organizations and individuals. The people that are privileged today, like myself, will see their privileges diminish. But to lose privileges mustn't be a disaster, it can also be liberating in the same way as the abolition of apartheid in South Africa didn't only liberate the blacks but also the whites from an undignified relationship. If I might venture a guess, it is that we will find the winners in the middle income countries. This may sound surprising as they are the ones that also are well known for break-neck growth and environmental degradation. But they are not yet stuck in the high energy society, and in any case, it doesn't offer them the same prospects as it did the high income countries as returns, both economic and energetic on the use of more energy are diminishing. They have, hopefully, learned something from our mistakes ad they can challenge the high income countries politically and economically. There is a middle class that can be engaged in a political change project. They also have a very big part of the world's population, so their choice is to some extent the choice of humanity. In Europe and the USA, environmentalists have for decades used a rhetorical question: “what will happen of the Chinese adopts western lifestyles and consumption patterns?” Now, this question is no longer a rhetorical question. It is reality; soon but it will not be answered by western environmentalists but by the Chinese themselves; because whatever the global impact is, the impact in China itself will be even greater. In 2006, there were 16 million electrical bicycles in China, in 2010 their numbers were probably 120[1] million (NYT 2010c). They are for sure no ideal and not unproblematic from an environmental perspective, they spread led from batteries and they need coal-generated electricity (ADB 2009). Nevertheless, they are clearly favourable compared to cars, and the infrastructure needs is the same as for the benign snail-bicycle, and they represent just one of many examples of how they can avoid the mistakes of high-income countries. China is also the number one producer of solar technology. Countries, such as the USA, which whole society is stuck in and fed by high-energy consumption and a world order where it has profited from the weakness of others will have difficulties to find new ways. The poorest countries, on their hand, will be stuck in the wish to be rich and they will also lack social, manufactured and human capital to make a comprehensive and fundamental change.

[1] In the Swedish edition of the book, I wrote: in 2009 there are probably 50 million...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Advise for Christmas

Don't buy too much stuff this Christmas!
Well, if you haven't understood that yet, you have some homework to do....

says anti-Santa Gunnar, here with the Sydney opera as a hat.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A model for fair trade.

"It takes a village to raise a child"

That is a Tongan Proverb. I am currently on a job for the FAO for the development of the organic sector in the Pacific. I am now in Fiji after visiting Solomon Islands and Tonga.
Similarly as in Samoa, which I visited earlier this year, and in Bhutan there is an interesting culture. While it is an old culture it might also have seeds for the future. The proverb is stressing the need for community. The Westerns view, or at least the view that has penetrated Western culture lately is based on an extreme individualism. According to Time magazine for this week, it has grown worse. Anyway, traditional cultures pay a lot more attention to family and not only that, at least in some cultures the local communities are also seen as essential, which is exactly what is expressed in that proverb. Ultimately we are a social being and not individuals. It is the social organization of humans that made us to what we were. If we had been "individuals" throughout history, we would hardly been different than any other animal. It is actually only the most primitive animals that are acting as individuals.
Society IS part of humanity.

An interesting feature in Tonga is how Tongans "trade" with the Tongan communities abroad, in particular in New Zealand. While someone in Sweden might send a box of Swedish stuff to some emigrated relatives the first years, Tongan families (extended families) fill a CONTAINER with taro, tapioca, coco nuts and whatever they have and send off to relatives in New Zealand. And some time later perhaps a container goes in the other direction with some building materials and household appliances. Or perhaps money is sent. It is a kind of reciprocal exchange which was how we all traded historically,before money. In old times, trade was about ecological adaptation and about strengthening ties between communities, gifts and bartering ruled. That was before "profit", "self-interest" and the "invisible hand" came into play. Why are we so blinded?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Economist: Coping with climate change - buy an airconditioner!

The Economist writes about climate change in its leader (27 November):
"The best protection against global warming is global prosperity. Wealthier, healthier people are better able to deal with higher food prices, or invest in new farming techniques, or move to another city or country, than the poor ones are. Richer economies rely less on agriculture which is vulnerable to climate change, and more on industries and services, which by and large are not. Richer people tend to work in air-conditioned buildings. Poor ones tend not to"

This is cynicism limiting to cruelty and reminds me of the alleged statement of Marie Antoinette when the starving people of France were demanding bread:"why don't they eat pastries instead" (I have reason to believe that she actually never said this, that it is fabricated statement, but we certainly have no problem imagine that she could have said it). Admittedly there are some other parts of the Economist leader that shows a bit more insight (but that wouldn't make such a nice case).

Exactly because rich people work in air-conditioned buildings they are causing global warming. To have more people working in air-conditioned buildings are really the last recipe we need for dealing with global warming. All since the Bruntland commission formulated the winning formula of "sustainable development" the myth that continued economic growth is not only good for all of us, but also the way to deal with environmental challenges has been spread by both industry and a growing sustainability industry in all shades. The worst shade is the greenwashing industry that churn out the same rubbish as they did before just adding a little sustainability component, such as recycled plastic, less emission or not even that; some nonsense "environmental certification". I am myself part of a more benign species of the sustainability industry. Nevertheless the idea that we can basically continue as we do, just tweak the technology a bit is a true pie in the sky. And it is the same pie even if re-named to green economy or some other fad expression.

Reviews of my book

Extracts of five reviews of Gunnar Rundgren's book Trädgården Jorden (Garden Earth)

Trädgården Jorden is very comprehensive and thorough. It starts with hunters and gatherers and moves ahead purposefully towards reflections on the future ahead. It takes a systematic and holistic approach; discusses the being or not being of capitalism (both according to Rundgren); it explains how humanity is miraculously creative and astonishingly shortsighted simultaneously; and how we destroy the capital of nature. … This is a remarkable book that should be read by many. It can, in particular, be useful at universities in several disciplines. It gives a broad knowledge of the historical conditions that shaped our world. It also gives a snapshot of how our world looks today, with all its cruel injustices. And it introduces a lot of relations and connections and in particular our devastating rampage......All these experiences are tied together. It makes his book unique and actually quite impressing.
review by Sverker Sörlin in Uppsala Nya Tidning.
Sverker Sörlin i professor in Environmental history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm

The book synthesizes what others have written, said and thought, but he binds together thoughts in ways I never seen before. He emphasize the complexity with a focus on one issue or a partial problem and dealing with the bigger issues. Trädgården Jorden is more complex than that. And it is there Gunnar finishes his book. We live in a complex context and if we don't care about the other humans and other organisms, who shall then care for us?
Grus, magazine of the interest free bank JAK,
also published by the Greeneration,

A picture is drawn of the historical development of society and the economic systems, with a focus on our impact on nature resources and the aim of sustainable development. After describing, on a general level, the big picture regarding resources, technology and economy the author gives a view of the ecological challenges of our time. On this basis he proceeds to the fundamental economic and political conditions. Finally, he sketches the changes that are needed and this results in the radically different society system ”Garden Earth”. The narrative has many references to environment and political sciences and is a very thoughtful and persistent argumentation for a radical societal change.
Anders Weidung in the BTJ magazine

Trädgården Jorden is no common book, and like most authors of not common books, Gunnar Rundgren want us to think.... Easy to digest? Hardly, but if we are going to save the planet it is not the wide path that will be trodden. Trädgården Jorden is explicitly political. Gunnar Rundgren doesn't believe that Green Capitalism can save the earth. What does he believe in? A narrow and winding path built on cooperation, respect and humility towards the incredible system of life of the planet.
REKO magazine,

Trädgården Jorden is an important contribution to the environmental debate. It is full of information, references and examples and it has no black and white analysis or simple answers. It is thus as complex and at the same time as simple as a garden can be.
John Gerhard in Newsletter of Ekolådan,

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Effects of Transition Totnes

People visiting Totnes to find out about Transition have brought an estimated £122,000 to the local economy • over 300 people have visited the town to undertake Transition Training • TTT raised the funding for the 74 solar panels on Totnes Civic Hall which will generate around 13,000kWh (a third of its demand, leading to the Council saving over £5,500) • 186 hybrid nut trees have been planted throughout the town • over 4000 Local Food Guides (in 2 editions) have been distributed • our Garden Share scheme means that now 30 gardeners in 13 gardens are able to grow food, providing food to over 50 families • over 70 businesses now accept the Totnes Pound • organised over 140 public events • more than 1,000 students at King Edward VI Community College have now participated in our ‘Transition Tales’ programme • over 75% of people in Totnes and Dartington are aware of TTT’s work • more than 600 people attended 4 workshops on renewable energy

Those are some of the effects of Transition Totnes.

Can you trust organic claims?

Well there is no 100 guarantee!
There has always been fraud and there always will be fraud in markets.
In the last issue of The Organic Standard, I write the following on how we can reduce fraud.

To reduce fraud, in general, we can work in several, complementary ways. First and foremost, we must all support values and ethics that are honest and that view all types of fraud as a serious issue. Secondly, those on the receiving end, that is, those buying the product need to be just a trifle critical and not believe everything they are told. Not necessarily on the level of distrust, but say because they are maintaining a healthy curiosity. Thirdly, there should be a system of verification, certification of the claims. And finally, there should be a system
for enforcement and penalties for those that cheat.

Beginning with the producers and operators, we must realise that they are the ones that essentially provide the organic guarantee to the consumers. The system stands and fails with
them. If the producers are happy with the system, they will be inclined to feel that the system is theirs and will understand and want to follow the rules. If they feel the rules are dictated
from outside, or if they do not have technical or financial solutions to the problems they are confronted with, they will be tempted to cheat. In the early days of organic movements,
standards were developed by the growers themselves, or by organisations that at least were very close to the growers. Today, rules are increasingly set by governments. Still, within
that system, there are various measures to get the voice of the producers heard; the first step is certainly to make the rule-making process open and participatory. Once the rules are made, producers should be able to follow them. Far too often, rules are set that are impossible to follow, with the end result that producers are forced to cheat the system, or that derogations have to be formulated. This kind of rule-making undermines trust. Again, more participation, but also processes such as field-testing the standards and impact assessments of new rules, are
ways of dealing with it. We also need more support, advice, and technical development to make it possible to follow the rules.

Open information about all parts of the guarantee system is essential to create trust, but also to keep people in line. The more detail provided by the producer, the bigger the chance that
a contradiction will occur leading to the detection of fraud. It is one thing to say ‘I am organic’, it is quite a different story to explain how the land is fertilised, how pests are treated, etc. And it is not only certification bodies that can expose fraud. As with many of the fraud cases, it is often people in the trade that suspect fraud, especially large-scale fraud. The more information
everybody in the trade has access to, the more easily fraud will be detected. Negligence on the side of the certification bodies, accreditation bodies or authorities is also prevented by transparency in those processes.

The certification process itself has been subject to a lot of development. The shift from ‘control and inspection’ to ‘audit’ is more than just terminology. The audit culture is based on
documentation and analysis of how a system works, rather than critically checking what actually happens. This has two drawbacks. One is that this is not the natural way small producers,
farmers or food processors work; they are as unlikely to implement a quality management system in their operation as you and I are in our own lives. This means that they are alienated from those systems – and therefore more inclined to cheat. Secondly, it is a lot easier to fake a ‘system’ than fake the actual flow of products. It is the same in financial auditing, where it is rare
that the auditors discover fraud. It should be possible to increase real control in the certification process. Again, more transparency is a good place to start as well as working closely with business associations and others that have access to market knowledge. To act decisively and swiftly on signals from the public, employees, competitors, suppliers or buyers to the operator,
and to integrate the management of such sources of information into the process is necessary.

Finally, we see some cases of real enforcement of organic rules. That is good. Hopefully, legal actions, fines and imprisonment are limited to the real fraudsters. It would be tragic if
small-scale negligence enters the legal system. Minor violations by certified operators are best managed within the certification system. Good cooperation between the enforcing authorities
and the certification bodies is essential. This will ensure the efficient working of the system, and will result in mutual learning and a culture of improvement on both sides. We must always remember that to invite trade associations and growers’ associations to be active partners in fraud prevention and detection is a good way to create ownership as well as results.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The peasant strategy

There are quite a lot of alternative systems running in parallel to the prevailing system. One alternative which we often don't notice is the peasant, the small farmer. While indeed almost all farmers in the world are part of the global markets, or at least heavily influenced by them , peasants, small farmers, are all over the world struggling to limit the influence of capitalism and markets on their daily lives, for a multitude of reasons, but in particular to keep their autonomy. Traditional farmers are not only producing, but they are also reproducing the means of production. While the “normal” economy is extractive and exploitative and assigns no value to natural capital, for farmers that are tied to their turf for life and for generations to come, reproduction of the natural capital is as natural as reproduction of the own species . And this way of working is and should be a role model for any future society. To integrate production, consumption and reproduction in a harmonious model.

In The New Peasantries, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg shows how farmers in the country with the oldest commercialized farm sector in the world, for some five hundred years already, the Netherlands, try to avoid making their farms too dependent on the market: The first strategy is with pluriactivity; some 50 percent of the income in household on arable farm is derived from outside of the farm. The other, more important, strategy is to rely on the market for the sales but limit the market dependency on the input side, i.e. on the reproduction of the system. A farm which is based on family labour, has not debt, uses local nature resources, own seeds, limited machinery and the production system itself (soil re-generating technologies such as crop rotations), instead of being dependent on the market for its production, can sell in the market without being so totally in the hands of the market. The production process itself is not subject to the market for its organization, the link to the market is only at the end of the chain. Market failures may be painful but it doesn't throw the family into poverty. In addition, the strategy is mostly based on diversification and therefore less vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. Most Dutch farms are able to operate – and operate well – precisely because they don't make themselves dependent in input markets. “If all the resources used on the farm had the function as capital (i.e. generate at least the average level of profitability) and all labour was to be remunerated as wage labour, then nearly all Dutch farms, as well as the Dutch agriculture sector as a whole would be broke” say van der Ploeg 2009. And this in the country with the most modern and efficient farming system in the world!

This strategy is common all over the world and in particular in developing countries, where risk aversion and the lack of social security make farmers even less inclined to wager their livelihoods for possible short term gains. These farms also nurture craftsmanship and skills, i.e. human capital, rather than entrepreneurial management. The craftsmanship is about working with remoulding and improving what there already is, and what you have under your control, while the entrepreneur just buys in whatever he needs. The peasants don't represent an outlier or a curiosity. They still represent a third of the world population. But I also believe their approach to how to interact with the capitalist economy can be a model for what will grow in the future. "Backyard economist" Harriet Fasenfest explains why we should all be peasants:

The truth is, we city folks are all serfs, only fancier. We all work for the land owners and pay our way. Oh we may own our plot, but our goods and services are mostly delivered from far and wide which, in fact, is what separates us from peasants. They may be cash poor but they buy less. They produce the goods and services they require. And they supply for their needs within the balance of the commons - what it allows, how many it will naturally support. They do not speak stewardship but live it. We westerners must work for the company store. We must leave our land. All of us, day laborers for the man. Which could have worked, I suppose, if it had not been the betrayal -- the greed, the indifference, the stealing of the common resources for a privileged few. Yes, pity us.

While not always being conscious of its meaning and its character of civil obedience or sabotage, this is also behind the strive for mechanisms that put us outside of the reach of the monetary system, such as bartering and or swapping services as well as LETS currencies. The informal economy and urban agriculture are also partly based on the “peasant principle”. De-linking from the world capitalist economy, or simply ignoring it, is one of the most important strategies both for individuals, communities and countries that want to enter a new path of development. “if increasing numbers of people move to the slow lane where they can live satisfactory without consuming much then capitalism is doomed” says Ted Trainer.

(an extract from my book Garden Earth , forthcoming)

How we measure

Our society is obsessed with indexes and rankings. One of the most pervasive measures has been the Gross Domestic Product, GDP, supposedly a measure of economic wealth. There is perhaps no one that claims that it is a perfect index and many think it is not even a good index even for economic things. For example, while GDP is supposed to measure the value of output of goods and services, in one key sector—government—we typically have no way of doing it, so we often measure the output simply by the inputs. If government spends more—even if inefficiently—output goes up. In the last 60 years, the share of government output in GDP has increased from 21.4 percent to 38.6 percent in the United States, from 27.6 percent to 52.7 percent in France, from 34.2 percent to 47.6 percent in the United Kingdom, and from 30.4 percent to 44.0 percent in Germany (Stiglitz 2009). We also know that even directly harmful things, like a car accident will increase the GDP, and if I chose not to cook my own dinner, but go out, suddenly our ”wealth” has increased. We have discussed how the costs for curbing green house gas emissions also will become a plus in the GDP, and how the exploitation of limited resources is reflected as a GDP increase. The GDP is sometimes used as a statement of ”standard of living”, but there is no such direct correlation. GDP doesn't reflect inequalities, so some people can be dead poor even in a country with high GDP. The GDP also understates the benefits sometimes, because GDP is a measure in monetary values; the price of goods or services. A lot of consumer items, such as electronics and food has long-term falling prices, which means that we will get more and more ”stuff” for the same money, so even with a stagnant GDP materials wealth can improve considerably. Even when it was first developed, its main architect, Simon Kuznets, said that ”...the welfare of a nation can, therefore, scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income (Talberth and others 2006)” and later on he said ”Distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between costs and returns, and between the short and long run. Goals for more growth should specify more growth of what and for what" (Kuznets 1962). One would wish that politicians and economists would follow that advice more often.
Clearly, GDP is not an appropriate measure of progress of human societies. A number of alternatives have been promoted such as:
- Human development index (HDI) promoted by the UN Development Program (UNDP). HDI uses GDP as a part of its calculation and then factors in indicators of life expectancy and education levels. Notably it doesn't include anything on ecological sustainability. Scandinavia “scores” well in the HDI (UNDP 2005).
- Genuine progress indicator (GPI) or Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) - The GPI and the ISEW attempt to address many of the above criticisms by taking the same raw information supplied for GDP and then adjust for income distribution, add for the value of household and volunteer work, and subtract for crime, pollution and depletion of national resources. E.g. loss of farm land, erosion and compaction of farm land are joined together to be one of the 29 indicators. The GDP of Australia grew with 3.9% between 1950 and 2000, while the GPI only grew with 1.47%, and the disconnect between GDP and GPI growth has increased (Talberth and others 2007).

Talberth, John, Clifford Cobb and Noah Slattery 2007, The Genuine Progress Indicator 2006, Redefining Progress,

- Gross National Happiness – the country of Bhutan is working on a complex set of subjective and objective indicators to measure "national happiness" in various domains, such as living standards, health, education, ecosystem diversity and resilience, cultural vitality and diversity, time use and balance, good governance, community vitality and psychological well-being.
- Happy Planet Index - The happy planet index (HPI) is an index of human well-being and environmental impact, introduced by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in 2006. It measures the environmental efficiency with which human well-being is achieved within a given country or group. Human well-being is defined in terms of subjective life satisfaction and life expectancy while environmental impact is defined by the Ecological Footprint. In the Happy Planet Index, Latin America and the Caribbean scores very well (Abdallah and others 2009).
-The Ecological Wealth of Nations compares a nations “bio-capacity” with its “ecological foot” print. This measure can be combined with other measures, e.g. the Human Development Index (Global Footprint Network 2009).

Seeing the whole

There are reasons to question measurements that come up with one single figure. For instance, it is not really meaningful to combine current well-being and sustainability into a single indicator. That amounts to mixing up the profit and loss statement with the balance sheet, or have one combined speedometer and gas meter in a car. Even when speaking about sustainability to treat natural and social capital as interchangeable is dangerous. Once we passed a certain threshold of erosion of a nature resource, the loss of that resource can't be balanced by any other resource. All in all the various indexes have their strength and weaknesses. It is not my task here to sort out which one is the best one. Most people seem to be very impressed by these rankings and it is certainly a good way to make people more aware of the complexities in this world to adopt some other measures beside the GDP. Introducing other indexes and measurements has the benefit of using another perspective.

While it would be good to find other measures, we should also not exaggerate the effects of doing so. We have measured the number of hungry people in the world for many decades and the numbers are still appalling. We measure climate change, but it hasn't impressed politicians or citizens enough the take radical action. We need to keep separate the efforts to analyse our economy with alternative measures and terms and possibilities to manage our economy in that way. These various measures and indicators don't change the reality of economic agents, in particular companies. Companies are not trying to grow the GDP, they try to increase their profit or simply survive the competition. Even when they speak about "triple bottom line" and other niceties, increasing the profit will always be the overarching driver. And this will remain the same even if societies trash GDP as a measure. I have explained earlier how the market and technology logic by themselves drive (GDP) growth. Similarly, consumers don't buy more stuff to contribute to the GDP, they buy more stuff because it gives status or satisfaction or simply because they have money to spend, "money burning a hole in my pocket" as the saying goes. The effect of these measurements is on the political discourse mainly. 

(Extract from Garden Earth, update latest 1 May 2011)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nice to show results

By 2008, 80,000 farmers contracted by EPOPA have sold organic products to exporters for approximately US$ 15 million per year. All farmers received higher prices due to the organic premium, which ranges from 10-25% over the conventional price. Taking into account the size of households, 600,000 people have benefited from the programme.

This is how the Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa is presented as one of a limited number of case studies of "Evidence of Impact" on the joint donor web site

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Nothing has a value but everything has a price"

......said singer poet etc Emil Jensen at the event I visited today - the 25 years anniversary of KRAV, the organic standard setter and mark of Sweden (which I was one of the founders of).

I am normally skeptic about catchy one-liners, but this one does cover a lot of the problems of today's society. You can listen to Emil below (in Swedish).

Monday, November 8, 2010

The pear standard

I came across the Preserve web site by Harriet Fasenfest and enjoyed the nice mix of down to earth practical stuff and the thoughts about human society, all under the theme of "Householding" a great word - my mother was coincidentally a household teacher. Householding is the true economy.

She writes:
"The pears from my old backyard tree are free, plentiful, get no pesticides, need only a few paces to retrieve and are home processed to supply food for the year round. They are part of the family garden and home, part of, and in scale with, the natural world and can be shared with my neighbors and friends. They are the new gold standard – the pear standard."
read more..

Sunday, November 7, 2010

How to voluntarily limit energy use?

I the longer term it is likely that solar energy can provide us with most of the energy we need. On the other hand, energy scarcity is the only “natural” limitation to a total human expansion and conquest of everything on the planet. Perhaps we should be happy that energy is not in unlimited supply. With our tendency of exaggeration we most certainly will destroy the basis for our own survival says historian Janken Myrdal and I agree with him. If we first adapt ourselves to a non-expansionist way of living, then cheap and easily available energy can be a boon. In a simple analogy it is like eating sweets. It was just natural for humans to have a predisposition for sweet food, energy was always short in supply and our predecessors were rarely in the risk zone for diabetes. In modern society, where sugar is cheap and abundant, however, the craving for sweets needs to be kept in check. The consequences of not doing it are fatal. It is the same for our society at large. Too much cheap energy screws up the metabolism and we have to voluntarily restrict our use.It seems to me that the easiest way to get there is by taxing energy radically in the high income and middle income countries. The fact that some are obese doesn't mean that all should eat less; similarly, one third of the globe's population could do with an increased use of energy to improve their quality of life.

Fiction as forecaster

I am reading a book of environmental historian Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power, I can recommend it. Apart from a wealth of interesting facts Radkau also have a lot of interesting perspectives. Below an intriguing quote:
“The readers of horror fiction could most easily [compared to the scientists] foresee Chernobyl and September 11, 2001. Since the greatest environmental threats are hypothetical in nature, it takes imagination to create a mental picture of what they might entail. [...] The person who knows only secure facts cannot join the conversation about modern risks.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010


"Buy a proper taxi meter and fix it into your car. Set it to what it would actually cost you to drive if petrol cost three or four times what it currently does. It will act as a very useful tool for developing an awareness of your motor use and how you might set about reducing it"
That was a great proposal, from Rob Hopkins, the guy who is the brain behind the so called Transition Movement.
In the same paper, 10 things to do To Prepare For A Post-carbon Future... he also suggest that we can halve our income. Well those two proposals are number 11 and 12 in the 10 point paper, probably because they are a bit radical. But radical we need.


Monday, November 1, 2010

like patenting the sun....

"Shortly after a large-scale clinical trial in 1955, the first inactivated polio vaccine was being injected into tens of millions of people around the world - possibly the most successful pharmaceutical product launch in history. Asked why he had not obtained a patent on the phenomenally successful vaccine, Jonas Salk reportedly replied, 'That would be like patenting the sun.' A few decades later, this view seemed laughably quaint." (Science Commons 2010)

Equality is good for growth, but growth is not necessarily good for equality

Even if there is economic growth, there are no guarantees that this will help the poor. The appalling inequality can nullify all the possible wealth for the poor. Well, now some may object and say that there is a clear correlation between e.g. GDP and life expectancy. There is. But there is a much stronger correlation between income of the poor and public expenditure and life expectancy. A society with slow or no economic growth, but with equality and good public health care system will have a higher life expectancy than a society with high growth rates but with no public health care and continued poverty among large groups. Studies from Great Britain show that during the two great wars, life expectancy increased markedly. Despite a limited supply of food, undernourishment decreased. The reason for this surprising pattern is likely that solidarity, sense of community and social responsibility increased by the external pressure of the war. Public health care and support to the poor increased remarkably in the periods (Sen 1999).

Increased incomes for farmers and farm workers stimulates demand for goods and services by local artisans (blacksmiths, construction workers, seamstresses and brewers among others) and can in this way induce a virtuous cycle. A dollar in increased income, can in this way easily become two. Local wages will increase. There is a big difference in this regard between situation when growth is by hundreds of smallholders or when it is in a big plantation. When the latter increases is income, most of the money is spent on imported inputs and machinery as well as on luxury products for private consumption, with little positive impact on local trades. There is thus a strong link between equality and local economic development (FAO 2003).

Extract from Garden Earth

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Man giveth and he taketh away

Man’s activities sometimes lead to extinction of other species. Of 10,000 bird species, 90 have been extinct since year 1600, another 1,000 are considered to be threatened. Of the extinct species, most were endemic, i.e. existed only in one isolated environment, mostly an island. A third of the extinct birds were on Hawaii. Also so called indigenous people exterminated other species. Twelve of the ninety bird species were exterminated by the Maori on New Zeeland, before arrival of the Europeans (NRM 2008). The Maori were also newcomers in the environment. The role of humans in the great death of big mammals in North and South America is still disputed, but the mammoth, the mastodon, camels, horses, bears and big cats disappeared within some thousand years after the first appearance of humans in the Americas. And there is no other, better, explanation given than that humans were to blame1. And it is sad. As Rolf says: “our life becomes poorer, emptier, when one life form is lost and diversity reduced. Life forms lost can never be replaced. A lost instrument is a loss for the whole orchestra, and reduced the power of the symphony” (Edberg 1976, my translation).

Meanwhile, we should have a reasonable perspective. Some claim that 99 percent of all species have been extinct already over the billions of . And most people are likely to be happy for that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is not roaming around; if it did I am certain that there would be calls for their culling. One often hear that there are chain reactions; if one species vanish there will be chain reactions so that other species also disappear, or that the whole balance in the ecosystem is disturbed with unpredictable consequences. And, for sure, it can be like that; there are keystone species. Perhaps it is a small predator that prevents a particular herbivorous species from eliminating dominant plant species. Without the predators, the herbivorous prey would explode in numbers, wipe out the dominant plants, and dramatically alter the character of the ecosystem. The scenario varies, but the central idea remains that one species has a fundamental impact on ecosystem functions. On the other hand, nature is very multifaceted, and at least in the longer view new balance will come. Also, species that vanishes are, mostly, specialists with narrow niches, rather than generalists. If they are gone, a generalist will often take their place, at least for a . Humans, mice and house sparrows are generalists which adapt themselves to many different environments (the mice and the sparrows seem to follow in our footsteps). Humans have, accordingly, taken over the role of many of the predators they have exterminated.

One hundred species per million are currently estimated to be lost per year (Rockström and others 2009). But what does it really say us? We have no clue even how many species there are: "Right now we can only guess that the correct answer for the total number of species worldwide lies between 2 and 100 million," says the ecologists Michael Rosenzweig (Society For Conservation Biology 2003). According to the latest Red List, 17 291 species out of 47 677 assessed are under threat: 21 per cent of all known mammals, 30 per cent of all known amphibians, 12 per cent of all known birds, 28 per cent of reptiles, 37 per cent of freshwater fishes, 70 per cent of plants, and 35 per cent of invertebrates (UNEP 2010b). Coral species are deteriorating most rapidly in status. Nearly a quarter of plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction. The abundance of vertebrate species, based on assessed populations, fell by nearly a third on average between 1970 and 2006, and continues to fall globally, with especially severe declines in the tropics and among freshwater species (CBD 2010). Mass extinctions have taken place earlier. But the belief5 is that in earlier mass extinctions the rate was some 15-30 species per year while we are now speaking about thousands. According the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is the rate some 50-1000 times higher than earlier. It estimates that the rate will increase further (MEA 2005).

We should be worried that so many species are disappearing in such a rapid pace. It can lead to a loss of potential raw materials e.g. for food, medicines or pest control agents. More than 50 percent of all medicines are produced by substances first detected in nature. More than 50,000 species are used for medical purposes of which 3,000 at a volume where they are traded internationally. Some 1,000 of them are grown commercially (Lehman 2009). But by and large it is not that one specie is lost that we shall see as a problem. If that would have been a disaster the world would already be gone as most species have been extinct. The problem is the large scale transformation of the whole planet to serve us humans, a process where we don’t only exterminate a few species, but landscapes, whole ecosystems and their essential life-upholding services. Measures to keep one species alive can command enormous resources, and ultimately, still be in vain because the habitat is simply not there any longer. Instead of straining the resources of society – and the support of the citizens – in order to save one species, it might be a better investment to put the resource into keeping some thirty other species, with better life expectancy so to say, abundant.

In the same way as we humans have created new ecosystems (farms, parks, rangelands) we have also created many new plants and animals. Just think about all dog races and the many cows and thousands of plants that don’t exist in nature. Many plants we grow can’t even multiply naturally (apples and roses just to mention a few). Of course, the plants we developed don’t replace the ones we exterminate. Now a lot of this agro-biodiversity is threatened. It might sound paradoxically that some of the most threatened plants, animals and ecosystems are those we created ourselves. But at a closer look it is quite apparent. We have created them and it is only our active care that keeps them alive. If we stop to use them and take care of them, their whole life space disappears. And we humans have constantly changed our use of nature as we have changed our own behaviours and our organization in society. As little as we can take care of every single species in nature, can we take care of every variety of cabbage or breed of sheep. Most of the things we created are not very competitive in nature and some of them are functionally defect, e.g. turkeys that can’t reproduce themselves or cows, like the Belgian blue, which can’t give birth naturally. And we have genetically modified crops which have the “evolutionary advantage” that the can survive a spray with a certain herbicide, glyphosate (better know under one of its trade names (Roundup ©). These crops are linked to an “ecosystem” where this herbicide is the main selective forces. There is certainly no value in keeping those genes alive!

Another peep view of Garden Earth

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rich people are not starving – can markets help?

It is the World Hunger Day 16 October
Who is starving? It is perhaps quite obvious but is has to be said: Rich people don’t starve. Also, I believe most people have also understood that there is, globally, enough food in the world, it is just badly distributed, and also a lot of food is going to waste, in high-income countries mainly at the retail and consumption stages, in low income countries more often in the field and in immediate post harvesting. Many countries where people are hungry are also exporting food.

Far too often hunger and malnutrition are discussed as a problem to be solved by certain agricultural technologies, such as chemical fertilizers of GMOs. India is a poster child of the so called Green Revolution, a package of modern seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, which was introduced already 50 years ago. The Indian government is still subsidizing chemical fertilizers in the tune of US$ 20 billion annually. Nevertheless, India is the country in the world with most hungry people, 237 million people, that is almost as many hungry as in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa (239 million). In light of that, I can’t understand why some people are promoting more of the same recipe as a solution for the world’s hungry.

Despite a virtual population explosion, thanks to the impressive productivity gains by the world’s farmers food prices have decreased dramatically over the last sixty years. We are speaking about a fall in prices of about 60 percent for staple foods. But the number of hungry has been fairly constant. This shows two things. That increased total production of food is not a recipe for food security and that lower food prices is not the way out of hunger. Low food prices might be good for poor people in urban areas, and angry, hungry young men in cities are prone to rioting and uprising. But most of the hungry people are, perhaps paradoxically, in the country-side and many of them are small farmers.

For a Swede the idea that a farmer is starving may sound strange, but actually we don’t have to go more than 150 years back in our own history to find a similar situation. Small tenant farmers, torpare, were often not able to produce the food their, often large, families needed. In many cases, they (man and wife) had to work for a landlord or someone else to earn money for paying the rent of the farm, some clothes, tools etc. When they should have attended to their own crops at the peak of the year’s sowing and harvesting, that was also when their labor was in most demand. Their older children had to look for jobs instead of helping out on the farm. The farm itself was small and they lacked good tools to make their work more efficient. To pay what they owe they often had to sell of their meager crop at harvest when prices were low and buy in the lean period before next years crop. Because they lived in bad conditions they got more sick, but couldn’t afford proper medical care and in the end they couldn’t work so well.

This is a description of the situation of many of the poor today as well. In the very short term such household will benefit from lower food prices because they are net buyers. But this should not lead us into thinking that low food prices are good for them. By and large, low prices on agriculture products are bad news for agriculture. It means that farmers have to produce more to afford other necessities of life, pay their rent, their school fees, their medicines etc. And it is bad for the whole rural economy. Even for landless farm workers it is better that the farmers, their employers, make money than that they lose money. One can easily see in periods of high prices for a particular crop, e.g. coffee, how a whole area flourish.

But there are differences in effects. If the main money earner is a plantation kind of crop sold for export, wealth spreads less in rural areas. And even less if the main money earner is produced with the help of a lot of inputs that have to be bought from other areas, or other countries. That is one of many reasons for why proponents of sustainable agriculture are skeptical about increasing yields by the means of purchased inputs. Another reason is that it dramatically increases the risk of the farmer. If the crop fails, or if the world market price collapses the farmer sits with a hefty bill to be paid, but no income, which will throw him or her into absolute despair and poverty. The same increase of income gained by getting a higher price or by getting a good yield with use of local, free or low-cost inputs, is a lot safer and keeps money in rural economy. That is one of the reasons behind the promotion of organic agriculture for small-holders.

I had the pleasure to work with a Sida-financed project for organic farming in Uganda and Tanzania, the Export Promotion of Organic Products from Africa, EPOPA2, program. In the end of the project in 2008, it had 131,000 farms (corresponding to around 1 million people) engaged in 34 projects. The annual export sales value was around US$ 31 million, of which around half reached the farmers. We commissioned several studies that showed beyond doubt that the farm households in the project experienced improved food security. The main effect by which they improved their food security was by increased income. There are other schemes aiming at similar things, such as Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade etc., but organic is without competition the most important scheme with a global market of around US$ 55 billion and constantly growing, even through the recession.

There are some complications with large scale international trade in food. One is that there is a large scale movement of nutrients from the exporting country to the importing country. Soils are mined and depleted in exporting countries and importing countries get an excess of nutrients, causing environmental problem. This is not sustainable. Another troubling aspect of free international trade is the extreme tilted competition. Farmers in developing countries are supposed to compete with farmers in high income countries which are heavily subsidized, in the range of US$ 250 billion annually (OECD PSE rate). And even worse, the productivity per worker in OECD countries is in the range of US$ 25,000 dollars, while in low income countries it is just a few hundred dollars. Or expressed in other terms: a farmer in low income countries produce less than a ton of grain from one year of toil while a farmer or farm worker in OECD countries produce 500 up to 2000 tons. Is it really realistic for them to compete in a free global market? In my view trade from low income, tropical countries, shall focus on crops with high-energy, low-nutrient content, such as sugar, cotton and oil or crops, in this way what is exported is basically carbon, packaged solar energy, of which the tropics is abundant. The other option is high-value per kg crops such as spices, coffee and cocoa. Many of these crops are not easily produced in high income countries, which is the reason for why poor countries are still competitive. The day the GMO engineers of agri-business has made a coffee tasting corn that can be grown in the plains of the US, Ukraine or Argentina, millions of small holders in Ethiopia or Rwanda will be in for a very, very bad time.

That the confidence in the global market is rather weak was shown in a dramatic way during the last food price hike where countries introduced export bans and even more interestingly some net food importing countries, such as South Korea, Libya and Saudi-Arabia made bilateral agreements with food producing countries to safeguard food supply. With that in mind I think we need to be a bit cautious about promoting global food markets as a solution to problems of poverty and food security. Sweden has a very strong free trade tradition and it is popular here to blame all problems on trade restrictions and to believe that most problems can be solved by trade liberalization. Food is not just another commodity to be shipped and the relationship between humans, the food they eat and their local ecosystems needs to be strong to nurture a sustainable stewardship of the planet, locally and globally. So while it is clear that international markets represent a great opportunity for many, I believe they should not be oversold as a panacea.

I don’t have the Answer, and perhaps there is no such simple answer. Markets certainly can help, but they will not solve some underlying disparities. Hunger is mainly about poverty, and poverty is largely about power, it is power that has determined who has and who has not. To give poor people access to resources; land, capital and water in particular; and political influence are most important. Direct cash contributions to vulnerable households are probably an interesting solution, which also will stimulate local food production and local food markets.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mad as hell

The Environmentalist's paradox

Untangling the Environmentalist’s Paradox: Why Is Human Well-being Increasing as Ecosystem Services Degrade?

Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Garry D. Peterson, Maria Tengö, Elena M. Bennett, Tim Holland, Karina Benessaiah, Graham K. MacDonald, and Laura Pfeifer has published an interesting article with that title in Bioscience. And hand on your heart, if you are a person engaged in environmental issues, isn't a devastating collapse one of the best arguments for changes? But on the other hand we who would wish that to happen. Anyway, if you are too lazy to read the whole article. They write:

"Environmentalists have argued that ecological degradation will lead to declines in the well-being of people dependent on ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paradoxically found that human well-being has increased despite large global declines in most ecosystem services. We assess four explanations of these divergent trends: (1) We have measured well-being incorrectly; (2) well-being is dependent on food services, which are increasing, and not on other services that are declining; (3) technology has decoupled well-being from nature; (4) time lags may lead to future declines in well-being."

In the article they come to the conclusion that evidence is very weak for 1) ; fairly strong for 2); not convincing for 3) and for 4) they say there is mixed evidence but strong theoretical support. I find the article interesting and well reasoned, but I don't understand how 4) can have only "weak emperical" support. I believe that climate change is a good example and that soil degradation in many parts of the world is another example. And there are certainly many local cases of environmental degradation reducing peoples' wellbeing, such as water and air pollution, noise in cities etc.

In the conclusions they say:
"Evidence presented here suggests that the growth of human well-being despite losses of ecosystem services can be partially explained, but not completely resolved, using available data. Trying to untangle why measures of human well-being are on the rise while ecosystem conditions decline is critical to improving ecosystem management. This conclusion highlights an important but often blurred distinction between human impacts on the biosphere and the biosphere’s impact on human well-being (my italics). These are clearly two different things, and although we have a good understanding of the negative impacts of much of human action on biodiversity, natural capital, and the biosphere, we have only a weak understanding of the consequences of changes in the Earth system for human well-being."

read it!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Malawi Fertilizer Myth?

I participate in many international events where food security is discussed. Again and again the proponents of an African Green Revolution are promoting subsidised chemical fertilizers as a panacea. And they bring the Malawi success story to the table. Well, even if I don't believe the story, it is hard to argue against when there is no reliable data or proper analysis. There is really very little data that supports the story either, but when "big names" say it again and again it kind of becomes a truth. Just the other day Jeffrey Sachs wrote in the IHT "African leaders, such as President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi, also broke old donor-led shibboleths by establishing new government programs to get fertilizer and high-yield seeds to impoverished peasant farmers who could not afford these inputs. Farm yields soared once nitrogen got back into the depleted soils."

Many African leaders are also very keen on subsidies to chemical fertilizers - when paid by foreign donors - as it is a cheap way of to keep people in the countryside a bit happy, buying votes to express it a bit cynically.

But the policies of subsidising fertilizers were tried decades before and it always failed. African farmers are not stupid. When they don't use chemical fertilizers it is because it is not profitable and because it is risky: If there is a draught it certainly doesn't help anything that you have used fertilizers, the only thing you have left is the debt for buying them......

Finally I have at least found one report that debunks some of the myths about the "success" of fertilizers in Malawi. "The myth of Malawi’s food self-sufficiency ― enough food for everyone?
Implication of policy and food entitlement in household food security of rural Malawi"
by Sachi Yamada. The report gives a much more nuanced picture of what are the important issues for food security in Malawi. It clarifies that most of the food deficient households, being farmers or non-farmers are constrained by low cash income, and that even those that have land are forced to seek casual employement to get income, and that such employment is mostly available at the same time as they need to work their own lands, i.e. at sowing and harvest. In addition, when they do have a surpluse, they need to sell it at harvest to get cash, which means they have to buy again in the lean period before next harvest - when prices are higher. The report doesn't say that subsidies of fertilizers are bad, but it also shows how limited the success is.

Another study of use of fertilizers in Malawi, Zambia and Kenya concludes that:
As a tool for increasing overall agricultural productivity, especially for small, poor farmers, fertilizer subsidies have a questionable record. Long experience with input subsidy programs in Africa is not encouraging on several points: (a) there is very little evidence from Africa that fertilizer subsidies have been a sustainable or cost-effective way to achieve agricultural productivity gains compared to other investments, (b) there are no examples of subsidy programs where the benefits were not disproportionately captured by larger and relatively better-off farmers, even when efforts were made to target subsidies to the poorand (c) there is little evidence that subsidies or other intensive fertilizer promotion programs have “kick-started” productivity growth among poor farmers in Africa enough to sustain high levels of input use once the programs end.

Poverty is and remains the cause of hunger. And ultimately poverty is a question about power, because power relationships determine who has and who has not. In the short term, it seems more reasonable to give food insecure household cash instead of fertilizers. Then they don't have to sell their maize at lowest price and then they could even invest in their production and make their own choice if they want to invest in a treddle pump, a new hoe, in chemical fertilizers or organic fertilizers.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why is it so hard to live in a civilization that is based on the straight line?

“Why is it so hard to live in a civilization that is based on the straight line?” asks Tor Nörretranders and supplies the answer: “because it has so little information”. We have all the time strived to increase accessibility and predictability in our relationship with nature and other people. That is why we build roads and why we make laws. With industrialism we can create a very predictable world, a world where we can sleep well in a comfortable bed in warm houses without fearing the wolfs, where we don't have to look down where to put our foot, because the know the pavement is even; we can count on that the meeting car is driving on the “right” side of the road. This world also easily become a very boring world, exactly because it is so predictable. And in no way, is the information society giving us a more complex world or less predictable world. Despite its name, the information technology has less information than the technologies it replaces. “Humans that have the capacity to meaningfully process millions of bits per second are now processing a few bits in a computer screen” (Nörretranders 1991).

This is another side of how we build society, and another example of how too much of something that is essentially good and useful can become a burden.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Time to retire?

Some claim that we have to know now what an alternative way of organizing society will look like; that even to entitle us to criticize the existing society, we need to have an alternative to put in place of it. But there is no reason to demand that we know how a future society would look like in order to criticize the current. Humanity didn't chose capitalism, it grew, stealthily, under feudalism, and once it had matured and the conditions were the right it took over society, or at least tried to dominate it. At no particular point in time, in most countries, did “the people” make a clear choice to introduce capitalism. When the masses finally got limited power through parliamentary democracy, capitalism was already a fait accomplit. In the same way that the empires that emerged with iron represented an aggressive impulse that forced others to become similar, capitalism forced others to adopt the same system, either by direct conquest (colonization) or by competition. That military dictatorship or capitalist nature domination spread and conquered other cultures is not a proof that they are, or were superior in any way or that they are sustainable, as little as the cancer cell is better than the normal cell, even if it sometimes win.

All societies have their growth periods, maturity and decline. Decline has started long before we can point to defined proofs. When civilization has built the biggest temples for its own glory, mold, termites, rodents and rot are already busy to tear it down. We are there already. Shall we go on building temples like the Maya? Exactly what is it in the capitalist project that we so desperately hang on to? Is it the sanctity of private property; the freedom of the individual; the difference in income; the commercialization of all aspects of our life; the leveling of differences in cultures and values across the globe? It is time to ask those questions, to critical ask ourselves: what was it that we wanted to accomplish? If it was a high standard of living? We have it now. If it was freedom of the individual?, we have that as well (well at least in many countries). Are you sure we need the same system to maintain these as the one that created them? For clearing new land, we cut down forests, or drain swamps, we burn, we use heavy machinery to make the land suitable for farming, but once we done that, we can use much simpler techniques every year. Is it perhaps like that with capitalism? It has done its job. Time to retire?

The good news is that the new society is already emerging as we speak. We don't see it clearly yet, and there is no master blue-print or commander, but there are signs.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Growth as a symptom and not a problem?

Growth is discussed again. The discussion is complicated by that people mean different thing with “growth”. First we can mean growth of the physical resources we have at hand. This is simply not possible, but of course, when we expand, colonize, into places we were not before, to the moon, deeper and deeper in the earth crust or into the sea, deeper inside the molecules, we obviously do expand the possible things we can use for economic activity. Another thing is that we can expand, or reduce, the value of such physical resources. And indeed we do. Things that were valuable, e.g. flint, becomes redundant because of the discovery of iron, and things that were abundant and therefore with no value gradually become scare and therefore valuable, today even sand for construction is a desirable commodity and water is increasingly getting more and more expensive. The beauty, from the perspective of growth, is that the more we deplete a resource the more valuable it becomes, until it collapses as an interesting resource. So in that sense, resource depletion will actually increase the value of the stock and not deplete it. The last decades have also created new growth sectors, the cleaning up sector, where the massive flow of capital to green house gas mitigation is a good example, but there are so many more. The ultimate growth prospect is in the idea of selling that you will not use a resource, to preserve it. And of course, we could create unlimited growth of doing nothing. What will you pay me for not colonizing Mars or what will you pay me for going back to the hunter and gatherer society, personally negating last millennia of environmental destruction. That kind of growth have no limits for sure. Sometimes it is discussed that “fixing” the problem with green house gases will “cost” so and so many per cent of the GDP, but the reality is that it will increase the GDP. The final, and in the long run interesting discussion, about growth is if it will increase our well-being.

There is a paradox that those who are the most positive to the capitalist society and modern technology don't seem to believe in it. Wasn't it the whole idea that we could work a bit less and that industry, technology and energy should relieve us from the toil of work, give us more leisure, more time to enjoy culture or whatever we want to do? How come that those who want that are against a society without growth, a society where people work less and not more? In a similar way, those politician that are skeptical over the growth paradigm are lured into it and speak about “green growth” and “green economy”, which shows how strong the growth paradigm still is.

Perhaps the interesting thing is not to discuss growth or zero-growth but to free our minds from at all use economic growth as a good indicator of development of any kind, whether it is good or bad. Growth is, in this perspective not the problem and certainly not the solution, but just a symptom of other things.

First it is a result of an economic system that needs to expand all time. It seems to have in-built mechanisms that makes standstill impossible, its “stable” mode of operation is growth while no growth, is unstable and is described as crisis (which interestingly enough is the opposite to the normal definition of crisis). It seems to me that it is mainly profit, and the constant expectations of profit that is the primary driver here, and that it might not make such a difference if the profit is comes as rent on capital, speculation or dividends on stock. In a stationary economy, all these forms of profit would lead either to inflation or to that money is transferred from the poor to the rich. And, well, money is transferred from the poor to the rich constantly, and it is only by growth that the poor don't end up starving (which they still do in many parts of the world) or making revolution.

Mirroring this, we humans also aim for increasing our material wealth, that is largely a function of our strive for status, and that status in today's society is acquired by a high income and wealth. The desire for status is rather hard-wired in humanity, in particular among males one might assume with a bit of evolutionist thinking. In most societies there have been mechanisms to keep the hunt for status under control. So even in societies where physical force gave high status, there were limits in how you could express that physical force. Many traditional societies have strong limits for the possibility for the individual to amass property, and the expectation is that you will share with all your siblings, the clan or the community. And even after that money had become important for society, the handling of money was not seen as a status job, in the contrary. The Spaniards didn't take well care of all the silver they stole in America, their nobles didn't want to deal with money, so it was the Dutch and the English that transformed their money into luxury goods (that they did want) from China, and of course made large profits from it. The Spaniards own money was managed by the Genovese. Jews were heavily involved in finance and money matter as much a function of that it was not a noble activity as a result of their own industriousness. In the Ottoman empire, the infidel Greeks were the merchants and bankers as the noble Turks didn't want to soil their hands with such menial work (there is certain irony today that someone will entrust the Greek with their money....). Capitalism did away with all these restrictions and made money making into one of the most noble endeavors and being rich a potent aphrodisiac.

Finally, the introduction of fossil fuel made all this possible, to cut the chains of in-built biological limits, limits that, in any case made growth impossible. It is therefore more interesting to discuss profit; the status of materials wealth; the degradation of nature and the use of energy than growth per se.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cost of low social capital:10 percent

Many people speak about social capital, which can be explained as the trust, confidence and social institutions (norms) that shape the interactions between us in society (some, including myself, go further and see even the organisational forms of society as part of the social capital (i.e. the government and municipalities). I find it valueable even without trying to ascribe monetary values, but for economists and politicians it seems to have more "bite" if you can express it in dollars, euros or rubles.

The other day I was at the Bertebo conference in Falkenberg, read more at
where there were many interesting things. The one I wanted to highlight here is the costs of lack of social capital in Russia. Eugenia Serova, Senior adviser at FAO, said that the agri-business companies in Russia had to invest in protection of the farms and/or invest in the local communities to make people friendly for costs reaching 10 percent of the total costs. The CEO of a company engaged in farming in Russia, Black Earth Farming, confirmed that they have 500 guards on the payroll.

and the ice cream? what have they to do with this. Not much actually, but we had a studyvisit to SIA glass which is partly owned by the Bertebo Foundation that sponsor the event. And I needed some interesting picture to capture your interest....

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Don't despair!

I want to make some promotion of this web site, we are all worth a laugh now and then aren't we?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

What about a few more people in farming?

In the USA 2008 there were 9.6 milion people employed in restaurants , drinking places and catering. There were 1.5 million in the food manufacturing industry. There were some 15.3 million involved in retail trade. Obviously a lot of those are in the food retail.
There are just above 2 million people employed in farming, hunting and fishing.
Source: Employment Projections Program, U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Another way of looking at the situation, in a global perspective is that the coffee in your cup, for which you pay one,two or three Euro costs less than 5 cents, of which in turn the farmer only get som 2-3 cents, i.e. one hundredth of what you pay for it.

That is called value-addition....I hope you enjoy the cup!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Election campaign in Sweden

We have elections coming up in Sweden. This is my contribution to the election campaign.
The sculpture is from the Engelsbergs works, a World Heritage site

How to use the land?

(Photovoltaic elements outside of Heby in Sweden)

Will solar energy farms be a solution for the future? Is it really more efficient to use solar panels on farm land than to grow biomass?

Well, photovoltaic elements seem to have an efficiency of 12-15 percent, e.g. 12-15 percent of the incoming solar energy is captured by the cells and converted to electricity. The photosynthesis supposedly has only a few percents efficiency. I am not hundred percent sure of the math here, but that is what you get from literature. So from that perspective the choice is easy.

Notably, the miracle of the photosynthesis is NOT to just capture energy but to (re)produce life, something quite more remarkable than electricity. Nevertheless, in an energy scarce future we will have these kinds of discussions. Not to speak about the conflict between energy and food...

Another similarly interesting discussion is if you have a dam of water. Will you use that water for:
1. Hydropower
2. Irrigation of biofuel crops
3. Irrigation of food crops
4. Industrial water
5. Household water
6. Tourists water
7. Flooding wet lands to preserve bio-diversity
8. Tear down the dam to restore nature?

In a nature scarce world, there are tough choices to be made.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Being among the 1 percent richest in the world. me, no way!

I work a lot with development issues and think a lot about inequalities in the world. Still I was shocked to realise how privileged I am when I checked my income on the Global Rich List. A great web site.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has more wealth than the bottom 45 percent of American households combined

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Winners and losers

What is striking is that the same groups that emphasize that there are no winners and losers with gobalization; that it is beneficial for everybody, they constantly remind us of how important it is that “we keep our edge”, or “improve out competitiveness”, that we upgrade our society so that we are in the forefront of research and technical development. The columnist Thomas L Friedman writes in the World is Flat that:
“So if the flattening of the world is largely (but no entirely) unstoppable, and holds out the potential to be as beneficial to American society as a whole as the past market evolutions have been. How does an individual get the best out of it? What do we tell our kids?. There is only one message: You have to constantly upgrade your skills. There will be plenty of good jobs out there in the flat world for people with the knowledge and ideas to seize them. I am not suggesting that this will be simple. It will not be” (Friedman 2005)

This is echoed by politician from all kinds of camps and by institutions such as the European Union's vision 2020.
“Our economies are increasingly interlinked. Europe will continue to benefit from being one of the most open economies in the world but competition from developed and emerging economies is intensifying. Countries such as China or India are
investing heavily in research and technology in order to move their industries up the value chain and "leapfrog" into the global economy. This puts pressure on some sectors of our economy to remain competitive, but every threat is also an opportunity. As these countries develop, new markets will open up for many European companies”.(European Commission 2010)

Clearly, if is is so important for the USA and Europe to be ahead of the pack, it must be because the ones falling behind are “losers”, i.e. globalization is actually more of a threat for them than an opportunity. Why can't we just relax a bit, spend our energy on cleaning up the environment, reducing our ecological foot-print and enjoy a good life, instead of being coerced into working harder and harder to keep the edge? This, if anything, is the big failure of the globalized market economy. Especially as the actual benefits of unfettered global trade are fairly small.

Even the free trade oriented World Bank states that the "costs" for the current situation compared to full liberalisation corresponds to 0,7 percent of the GDP (World Bank 2007), hardly a “make or break” situation. This was eloquently expressed by the English worker Frank Owen, a character in Robert Tressel's novel, The Ragged Trousered Philantropists from the turn of the previous century:
"We’ve had Free Trade for the last fifty years and to-day most people are living in conditions of more or less abject poverty, and thousands are literally starving. When we had Protection things were worse still. Other countries have Protection and yet many of their people are glad to come here and work for starvation wages. The only difference between Free Trade and Protection is that under certain circumstances one might be a little worse than the other, but as remedies for Poverty, neither of them are of any real use whatever, for the simple reason that they don’t deal with the real causes of Poverty" (Tressel 1955).

Don't misunderstand me. I am not AGAINST globalization. I believe that free movement of goods and of people are human rights. I believe that, in total, there have been more benefits than bad things coming out of globalization, but then I speak about globalization as more than a narrow economic thing. I think of the globalization of human rights, of the internet, of the fact that dictators all over the world don't get away so easily anymore. There are draw-backs and there are benefits of globalization and depending on how the rules are bent it can be good for one and bad for another one. The current globalization has partly been driven, or should we say hi-jacked as a capitalist project opening up all aspects of human life to exploitation. And in that scenario we all have to continue working harder and harder.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Is the sky the limit?

Around thirty-five years ago interest in organic farming developed into a market-oriented concept, and that is when standards and certification were born, to be followed later on, by public regulations. Since then, and recently through a deep global recession, in almost all markets organic sales have maintained their growth. The area of organic farmland also continues to grow, but there are signs that there are limits to this growth. For example, in the last decade, the organic area of a few European countries has actually shrunk or been at a standstill for some years. In most cases this has been associated with changes in how those countries have implemented the European Union support programmes. Small farmers also leave organic certification, not because they stop farming organically, but because they want no involvement with the formalised organic sector and the hassle of certification.

It would be possible for all agriculture to be transformed into following organic methods. It would not be easy. Some aspects of organic farming might have to change. For example, it is hard to see how a total rejection of human waste, now prominent in organic regulations in the EU and the USA, could be combined with a full scale conversion to organic systems. Sewage systems would have to be improved so that what comes out of us could go back to where it came from, as with other cycles in nature. If organic farming was the norm for food production it would also be a logical step to abolish the practice of a special label and special certification. It would be more natural to insist that non-organic food is labelled – with warning messages if needed.

In most countries with an organic movement that has been ‘big’ for many years, most of the farmers that can easily convert to organic systems have already done so. This can be clearly seen by comparing, say, dairy and poultry farms in Northern Europe. In most Northern European countries it is relatively straightforward to convert a dairy farm to organic; the changes in management and infrastructure are not that dramatic. However, a comparable poultry operation is much harder to convert. This can be clearly seen in the proportions of poultry and milk sold respectively. Not only are poultry difficult at the production level; supply is limited and those that do convert demand good prices. So, ultimately market shares are affected as the proportion of buyers shrink when price premiums go from ten to hundred percent.

The strength of consumers’ voluntary choices as a force to change society can be seen when it comes to new technologies that transform our daily lives. Consumers use mobile phones because they are convenient and handy. Consumers buy TVs because they like to watch it. Hundreds of millions are on facebook every day. Certainly, peoples’ voluntary actions have a tremendous potential for change. The organic choice is a somewhat different choice. It is the first, and most the prominent, example of a process-oriented ecolabel, and as such a poster child for those that believe the market can fix all sorts of problem, including the lack of internalisation of costs. Producers and consumers of conventional food do not have to pay the true cost of production of conventional, non-organic food. The cost is paid by tax payers or future generations. If all external costs – that is the costs for water purification, soil degradation, health effects just to mention a few – were incorporated into the price of non-organic food those foods would be more expensive than they are today, some might be on par with organic, some perhaps remain cheaper others more expensive than organic food. The question of whether some consumers should voluntarily shoulder the costs while others can be free-riders is not only a practical one, but also a philosophical and ethical one. It may also be the reason for? that health – the only aspect of consuming organic products where the benefits are accrued by the consumer – is the killer argument in favour of buying organic products. The environmental or animal welfare benefits of buying organic foods are shared by those buying conventional food. It is rather naïve to believe that this system will be the system that carries organic production from a couple percent to the mainstream. The organic labelling system is a forerunner, but it certainly needs assistance for the transformation of agriculture to a situation where ‘organic’ is simply normal.

Leader in the upcoming issue of The Organic Standard

Monday, August 9, 2010

A barrel of oil: a ton of maize

According to FAO, 6,000 MJ of fossil energy (corresponding to a barrel of oil) is used to product one ton of maize in industrial farming, while for the production of maize with traditional methods in Mexico only 180 MJ (corresponding to 4.8 liter oil) is used. This calculation claims to include energy for synthetic fertilizers, irrigation and machinery, but not shadow energy, i.e. energy used for making machinery, transporting products to and fro the farm, and for construction of farm buildings (FAO 2000). The energy ratio is negative (below 1) for modern rice farming and just above one for modern maize farming, while traditional production of rice and maize give a return of 60 to 70 times on energy used . FAO has also compiled average data for energy yields for developed and developing countries respectively (see table). It shows that developed countries use more than double the amount of energy to produce a ton of grain, and three times as much per hectare (the reason for it being more per hectare is that yields are a bit higher in developed countries). FAO notes that “productivity is higher” when more energy is used, and with that they mean in particular productivity per labor unit. One could of course put it the other way round and say that the productivity measured on used energy is very low. When we discuss bio-energy this discussion is suddenly very relevant.

Different kinds of agriculture production and different food also have different energy ratios. The energy ratio is very low for deep sea fishing; for meat production from feed lots and from vegetables in heated green houses . A big share (often above 50%) of the energy use in farming is for the production of synthetic fertilizers, in particular nitrogen fertilizers, and pesticides. This also means that the contentious debate about organic vs conventional (non-organic) farming has a strong element of energy dependency debate. If improved energy ratio is a primary goal for farming, skipping, or at least dramatically reducing, nitrogen fertilizers is one of the best ways to get there.