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....