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