Friday, December 30, 2011

Eco labels: the more successful, the less value

 “The very traits — governance and inclusiveness — that make consensus-based standards so useful as credible mechanisms for collective action also pose challenges for businesses seeking to move quickly and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And like any tool, certification and labelling have limits — including limits to scale.” concludes a report from the consultancy Sustainability, 

33 years after the world’s first sustainability label (Germany’s Blue Angel) appeared, certifications and labels are now everywhere. The Ecolabel Index lists 426 certifications and labels in 25 industry sectors and 246 countries as of November 2011. Around two-thirds of these were developed in the last decade alone, and new schemes continue to arrive. And as our own research, the Organic Standard Directory shows that there are at least 124 organic standard, but probably many more, Nowadays it’s stating the obvious that consumers are confused by the sheer number of certifications and labels: according to the Natural Marketing Institute, 51% of American consumers think “there are too many green seals and certifications”; Only 42% of American consumers recognize Rainforest Alliance, 26% LEED and 19% Forest Stewardship Council, although 95% recognize Energy Star and 76% recognize USDA Certified Organic.

In the report Signed, Sealed... Delivered? Behind Certifications and Beyond Labels”, the UK based consultancy Sustainability asks “Why certify or label?” The report, based on 85 interviews with businesses, standards-setters, certifiers and other expert observers as well as desk research places the question in the context of other ways available to businesses for improving or communicating sustainability impacts across the value chain.

The interviewed businesses expressed frustrations with the soundness of criteria (“based on perception or politics, not science”, “popular only because it was the first”), the level at which requirements are set (“too low — we can’t differentiate ourselves”), the fit for the business (“requires us to change our processes for no reason”), or the failure of the standard to adapt to new knowledge or processes (“hampers innovation”).

Committing to a single standard can limit sourcing flexibility in the case of raw materials standards. Agricultural certification illustrates this challenge emphatically. “At the moment, certification is the only process we have, but at some point we’ll have to jump to a completely different mechanism,” states Jan Kees Vis, global director of sustainable agriculture at Unilever. “We’re not going to certify every farmer in the world, we can’t create a roundtable for every raw material.” Another risk for businesses is that participation in a labelling schemer ties them to the reputation and viability of the standards-setting organization. The reports predicts that the model of a standard, certification and label on one coherent system carrying most of the message will fade. Sustainability believes that in the future sustainability certifications will be moved to the back-of-pack, metaphorically and literally. 

I do agree with this analysis.  I have been working with this sector for three decades, and while I still think there are many merits in eco labels and organic labels, I think it is increasingly apparent that there are many in-built limitations in what they can deliver. As I write in Garden Earth: "The attraction of an eco label, for businesses and consumers alike is to differentiate a product from other products that are without the label. But the more successful the label is the less value it has in a competitive market."

Related blog post in Garden Earth
Don't buy organic instead of changing the world - do it as part of changing the world
Sustainable coffee is increasing, but only 35% is sold as such.
How fair is fair?
What gives value to an eco label



Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What will happen if we all do like China?

In Europe and the USA, environmentalists have for decades used a rhetorical question: “what will happen if the Chinese adopts western lifestyles and consumption patterns?” The idea of the question is to show that the Western lifestyle is not sustainable (which it certainly isn't)

Perhaps we got it all wrong. Perhaps we should ask the opposite question? "What will happen if we adopt Chinese lifestyles and consumption patterns".

I just read that China, despite being a stumbling block in climate negotiations has the most extensive payment scheme for ecosystem services in the world, they spend some US$90 billion in payment for ecosystem services according to a recent report. In Garden Earth I write: 
In Europe and the USA, environmentalists have for decades used a rhetorical question: “what will happen if the Chinese adopts western lifestyles and consumption patterns?” Now, this question is no longer a rhetorical question. It is reality; 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 million (New York Times 2010b). Electrical bicycles 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 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.

I don't want to glorify China, neither for its environmental nor for its social policies. But I do think there is a tendency in the so called West to not see promising signs. We need to realise that the Chinese are not only good in churning out industrial goods, but they are also masters in managing the landscape, which is why China has continued to be a major force in the world for thousands of years, with dips now and then.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who gave you your property?

La propriété, c'est le vol! said French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book Qu'est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernment (What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government). This perception was not new. The famous Marquis de Sade (Yes, the same guy whose name formed sadism) said:
"Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation. However, theft is only punished because it violates the right of property; but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft."
Those who are in favour of property rights to be almost unlimited and sacrosanct tend to be the same as those who wants to limit the extent of government. But they, conveniently, overlook a very fundamental fact. They have got their property from government and it is only government that can ensure their perpetuated right to the property. Before there was government, before there were laws and a state that could enforce them there was no property. And in most societies most things “belonged to” the community or the state. The root of private property is a privilege extracted from governments. This continues today where governments convert new things to goods and markets, for instance eco-system services. The market and control of such services is instituted by governments and through various processes allocated to private owners. 

Over years, different groups, with the support of the state (or being part of the state) came to take over larger and larger parts of property, such as the war lords, later becoming the respected nobles or the financiers of the state's war, the emerging capitalists of high finance. It is estimated that some 1.5 million valuable items were stolen from the Old Summer Palace in China, when ransacked by the French and the British 1860. Victor Hugo (1985) wrote:
One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace.[...] All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away.
To stimulate the transcontinental railway building, the US federal government gave one fourth of Minnesota and Washington and a fifth of Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and Montana to the rail road companies; an area bigger than France (Lindblom 2001). It is interesting to note that a professor in the stronghold for "free market" economics acknowledge this. "Land, natural resources, and government contracts and licenses are the predominant sources of the wealth of our billionaires, and all of these factors come from the government" says Ragharam Rajan, economist in Chicago (IHT 2011), referring to billionaires of India (read also NYT).

And no doubt, enormous wealth and therefore property is generated by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How property in the collapsing Soviet Union was distributed was a crash course in how property is unequally distributed to those that are close to the power. 

It is an entirely subjective and political decision weather some should be given unique rights to land or other resources or they should be common. A government could as well declare a universal right to food as the private right to land. For those, like the author, that is raised in a fully developed capitalist market society it is almost hard to conceptualise how a world without private property could look like. Still, in many parts of the world, forests and farm land are often owned by the state or by the local community. The point is neither that private property by itself is good or bad, nor to claim that anyone with property is a thief (which would then include myself as well). It is to clarify that it is a privilege based on state sanction, and that the unique rights that property has been given has very little to do in a discussion about freedom, and even less that property rights should form a moral justification for limitation of other peoples' freedom. First when we have cleared the myth, can we discuss property in a rational way.

"Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can" sings John Lennon in Imagine. This is probably our greatest challenge. To think outside the box.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Homo Petroleum

One sad fact with the internet is that it is so easy to find out if someone already "said it" or "thought it". Working with my latest manuscript, I had the idea to name our species after the dominating energy source used for the three main phases of development.
The hunting and gathering man - Homo something (yet to figure out - my Greek was never that good).
The farming man - Homo agricola
The industrial man - Homo petroleum 
The last thing recognizing the fundamental role oil (or fossil fuel in general) plays for our so called modern society. We often believe it is human ingenuity or technology or even "the market economy" that has made the modern world possible. But trust me, fossil fuel is the most prominent factor....

And of course I searched for Homo petroleum on the net and found that some other clever person already used the expression.

Discovering Homo Petroleum by Pouly

(original version in french)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Soil: wrong side up

"Author Joseph Kinsey Howard describes a spring day in 1883 in North Dakota when John Christiansen, a Scandinavian farmer, looked up while plowing a field to discover an old Sioux watching him. Silently the Sioux watched as the prairie grass was turned under. The farmer stopped the team, leaned against the plow handles, pushed his black Stetson back on his head, and rolled a cigarette. He watched amusedly as the Sioux knelt, thrust his fingers into the furrow, measured its depth, fingered the sod and the buried grass. Eventually the Sioux straightened up and looked at the immigrant. “Wrong side up,” said the Sioux and went away."

This comes from an article by Wes Jackson in YES!
The article is mainly about how to restore the prairies, or rather how to re-invent perennial systems of farming. He concludes:
"As civilizations have flourished, many upland landscapes that supported them have died, and desert and mudflat wastelands have developed. But civilizations have passed on accumulated knowledge, and we can say without exaggeration that these wastelands are the price paid for the accumulated knowledge. In our century this knowledge has restorative potential. The goal to develop a truly sustainable food supply could start a trend exactly opposite to that which we have followed on the globe since we stepped onto the agricultural treadmill some ten millennia ago."

Clearly soil erosion has caused the collapse of many civilizations. As I write in Garden Earth:

Environmental degradation has followed man since his first attempts to farm, well even before farming. Also hunters caused substantial degradation e.g. by the extermination of large mammals in North Americas or many bird species in the Pacific. Soil erosion is one of the most prevalent and also one of the most harmful kinds of environmental degradation. It was an issue of concern for rulers of ancient Greece as early as the sixth century B.C. The lawmaker Solon proposed a ban on cultivating hillsides in order to prevent erosion. The ruler Peisistratos rewarded peasants for planting olive trees instead of cutting down forests and grazing livestock. Two-hundred years later, Plato wrote of land devastation taking place in Attica:
“ the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil.” (Plato Critias)
If not dramatic collapse, so at least the slow decay of most civilizations can be traced back to soil erosion and wasteful agricultural practices. It is a sobering insight that there are very few agriculture systems that actually have proven to be really sustainable, and for many of those it is thanks to external factors that they are sustainable, not thanks to the ingenuity of humans. The fertility of the Nile valley and other flood plains is mainly a result of erosion up stream bringing every year new soil and new nutrients downstream. David Montgomery[1] states in Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations, that most historic cultures lasted between five hundred and one thousand years. They start off with fertile soils created by natural processes. Fertile soils in hills with good rainfall are brought into cultivation as population increases, but soil erosion makes fertility fall. Marginal lands are taken into cultivation where fertility plummets rapidly and finally the whole civilization collapse, the area is depopulated until nature replenishes the soils again. He shows that Schwarzwald (Black Forest, today dominated by forests as its name indicates) in Germany has gone through three such cycles (Montgomery 2007).

[1]       David R. Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, see a presentation here:

I have written several posts about soil and erosion. And even more about agriculture

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scarcity starts to bite

Norway has a shortage of butter, newsmedia report. Do we see the end of cornucopia? Will scarcity become part of everyday life in the future? 
"A radical change in food consumption and production in Europe is unavoidable to meet the challenges of scarcities and to make the European agro-food system more resilient in times of increasing instability and surprise. "
Is one of many conclusions of a recent report commissioned and endorsed by the European Union’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), an advisory committee comprised of representatives of all 27 EU member states plus 10 additional European countries, which is headed by the European Commission

Main messages of the report are:

1. The increasing scarcity of natural resources and destabilization of environmental systems represents a real threat not only to future food supplies, but also to global stability and prosperity, as it can aggravate poverty, disturb international trade, finance and investment, and destabilise governments. Price volatility, access restrictions and the interconnectedness of global commodity markets, as well as the increasing vulnerability of food production systems to climate change and loss of agrobiodiversity, will make food even more inaccessible for the poor in the future.

2. Many of today´s food production systems compromise the capacity of Earth to produce food in the future. Globally, and in many regions including Europe, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so. Nitrogen synthesis exceeds the planetary boundary by factor of four and phosphorus use has reached the planetary boundary. Land use change and land degradation, and the dependence on fossil energy contribute about one- fourth of Greenhouse Gas emissions. Agriculture, including fisheries, is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. Regionally, water extracted by irrigation exceeds the replenishment of the resource.

3. Drastic change is needed in regard to both food demand and supply. In an era of scarcity, the imperative is to address production and consumption jointly in order to introduce the necessary feedbacks among them and to decouple food production from resource use. Efficiency and resilience are the new priorities over production levels. This transition cannot be met by following the common narrative of increasing productivity. The narrative of “sufficiency” opens opportunities for transition into sustainable and equitable food systems by a systemic approach that deals with the complex interactions of the challenges founded on a better understanding of socio-ecological systems.

4. The average Western diet with high intakes of meat, fat and sugar is a risk for individual health, social systems and the environmental life support systems. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and cancer are wide-spread diet-related diseases. The promotion of a healthy diet also reduces the environmental footprint of food consumption in Europe and globally.

5. Coherence between food, energy, environmental and health policies and across all levels of governance are prerequisites for a timely transition to sustainable and equitable food systems. A new quality of governance is needed at local, national and global level, with a substantial contribution by the State and civil society. Research should strongly support this improvement, and the role of social sciences may be crucial.

6. Diversity and coordination are key for increased efficiency and resilience of the future agro-food systems. It is a fact and a strength that food consumption and production systems are diverse. This diversity has to be maintained, or diversification be fostered, between different regions and farming systems. Diversity in research directions will keep all options open for reacting to surprises.

7. Research, innovation and agricultural knowledge systems must be fundamentally reorganized. To speed up transitions, tightly and actively integrate 1) multiple disciplines from ecology, economy, agronomy, social science, 2) research, innovation and 131 communication, 3) farmers, food retail, technology, industry and agricultural research, and organise research and innovation as learning processes.

8. Make Europe the world leader in efficiency and resilience research of food consumption and production. Ensure a strong role of public research, in particular to guarantee a better understanding of the underlying processes of ecosystem services and the interactions among the scarcities. The continuation of cooperative thematic research in environmental topics and food production and consumption is as critical as the maintenance and further development of European research infrastructures in these areas.

9. Sufficiency-oriented research, innovation and communication must become the priority. Explore new opportunities and ecological approaches to boost research and innovation on efficiency in resource use in agricultural production, including new farming systems that balance the three dimensions of sustainability, and food processing, including cascading uses and waste reduction. Address consumer behaviour and supply chain strategies (including information and communication) in favour of healthy sustainable diets that save food and feed resources and can help curb the increase in global food demand.

10. A radical change in food consumption and production in Europe is unavoidable to meet the challenges of scarcities and to make the European agro-food system more resilient in times of increasing instability and surprise. Europe has already taken up the climate change challenge in industry and is intending to make new energy technologies a win-win-win strategy for market, labour and human welfare. Now the agro-food sector has an opportunity to positively take the challenge and be the first to win the world market for how to sustainably produce healthy food in a world of scarcities and uncertainty.

The report point outs the far-reaching effect of energy scarcity on food production: 
Oil scarcity may affect the food system in two ways: (1) shocks, that are a sudden deviation from normality; and (2) stresses, which are a continuous trend of intensification of the problem. Shocks would strike most where the system is most oil dependent: for example, the British system is very efficient, but heavily dependent on long distance sourcing, and a crisis in the energy sector may put food access of the Britons in danger. In countries with less efficient power distribution, the damage and chaos resulting from a black out could be much worse. Stresses could manifest themselves in a trend of rising prices, and if unattended, could bring to forms of adaptation which might be far from
efficient. Among the possible effects of stresses on agriculture related to oil prices there could be:
· Increase of costs of production, bringing a reduction of fertilizer and pesticide use, especially by resource poor farmers, and therefore a reduction of yields and / or impoverishment of soils (Jaggard et al., 2009).
· Increasing profitability of energy production from agriculture, that would generate problems for land use competition and consequently to further rise in food prices
· Reduction of consumption and changing dietary patterns, that may lead to an increase in

I would add the affect of reduced global competition which would follow as a result of increased energy prices. This reduced competition pressure would increase food prices for the benefit of farmers and local production.These kinds of effects are the ones that really will shape the world when energy is getting more and more costly. And the effects are not necessarily bad. All in all, increasing energy prices are likely to be a blow to the industrial agriculture model, but not necessarily bad as it will make better methods, such as organic more competitive. The changing dietary pattern following energy scarcity is also more likely positive rather than negative.
The report is written by: Annette Freibauer (chair), Erik Mathijs (rapporteur), Gianluca Brunori, Zoya Damianova, Elie Faroult, Joan Girona i Gomis, Lance O´Brien, Sébastien Treyer 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Location divide is more important than class divide today

A very interesting study by Branko Milanovic from the World bank concludes that differences in income between countries have increased tremendously in our modern society. And these difference also extent to salaries of workers. The difference in salary between worker in the richest countries and the poorest countries were small at the footstep of modern industrial society. Today, they are huge.

Among many things, it means that:
- capitalist globalisation has lead to increasing gaps, not decreasing (which is why the elite loves it)
- workers in the industrial countries are most likely profiting from exploitation of workers in developing countries (which is why it is hard to engage them in a global social movement).
- migration has a lot more appeal than ever before, and its potential to reduce difference in income is great(which is why there is such resistance to it).

Read also the post:

Growing inequality, between people, between countries, between region, between urban and rural

Some quotes from the report below

"Inequality between world citizens in mid-19th century was such that at least a half of it could be explained by income differences between workers and capital-owners in individual countries. Real income of workers in most countries was similar and low. This was the basis on which Marxism built its universal appeal. More than 150 years later, in the early 21st century, the situation has changed fundamentally: more than 80 percent of global income differences is due to large gaps in mean incomes between countries, and unskilled workers' wages in rich and poor countries often differ by a factor of 10 to 1. This is the basis on which a new global political issue of migration has emerged because income differences between countries make individual gains from migration large. The key coming issue will be how to deal with this challenge while acknowledging that migration is probably the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality."

"Angus Maddison has estimated that around 1850, the mean income in the poorest countries in the world (Ceylon and China) was around $PPP 600. 5 At the top were the Netherlands and the United Kingdom with a GDP per capita of about $PPP 2,300. Thus, the ratio between the top and the bottom (of country mean incomes) was less than 4 to 1. Consequently, the better-off workers who earned incomes close to the national means, could not, in terms of their standard of living, differ from each other by more than the ratio of 4 to 1. And the bulk of workers who lived at less than their countries’ average income and closer to the subsistence, could not have incomes that differed by more than 2 to 1—with many of them living at approximately the same subsistence level. Indeed, Broadberry and Gupta (2006, Table 6, p. 17) show that in the period 1800-1849, the wheat-wage of an unskilled daily laborer in India (among the poorest countries in the world then) was about 30% of the wage of a similar worker in England. And comparing the Netherlands with the Yangtze valley, two relatively developed areas sharing a number of similar geographic features, Li and van Zanden (2010, p. 21) conclude that in the 1820s, real wages in the Netherlands were about 70% higher than in the Yangtze valley."

"In 1870, the gap between the richest countries (Australia and Great Britain) and the poorest (Nepal and Ghana) was 8 to 1; in 2007, it is 31 to 1 (United States and Norway vs. Nepal, North Korea and Ghana)."

Monday, December 5, 2011

The internet isn't really bringing us together...

Excellent analysis by Ramesh Srinivasan, in the Washington Post

"We’ve long heard that the Internet was supposed to unite people of different cultural and political persuasions. Yet, despite the explosion of online voices, social-media users rarely access opinions that differ from their own, and many social-media sites — with their bifurcated like/dislike, join/don’t join ethos — only perpetuate the sound-bite culture of older media.Not only are our Facebook friends similar to us (we usually connect through mutual friends and shared interests), but researcher Ethan Zuckerman has shown that the sites we visit reaffirm our political and cultural preconceptions. This homogenization reaches the very machinery of social media — its algorithms — which tailor search results or Facebook feeds according to what the systems “think” users will find most interesting."
I would venture that TV and Radio probably did a lot more to bring us together than the internet. This because of the more limited number of voices in those media. It is simply more unifying that everybody sees the same TV show and listen to the same radio. This was also a reason for why totalitarian ideologies as fascism and soviet style communism were keen users of radio and movies.  

In a way it is a similar experience that I found from moving from a city, to the country side and back again. In the city you can easily congregate with your own mind-fellows and age-fellows, even the same old gang you went to school with. Even if you live in an environment with a lot of information and opinions around you don't often confront these other opinions. When you live in the country side you interact with the few people that are there, regardless of age, interest or political or religious orientation. Perhaps this is exaggerated a bit, but that is what you do to make a tendency clear.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Aging populations will end growth

Those that thinks that our society will continue along the same path forget that the Western European countries just have undergone a “once-in-the-millennium” demographic transition, which will never happen again, and that the USA are still in this transition and China has reached there as well. Throughout history of mankind, a relatively stable population has been normal and the rapid population growth of the last 200 years is the abnormal. The end to population growth is perhaps a bigger challenge for the capitalist project than the population explosion; after all, the population explosion had gone hand in hand with the capitalist expansion. A country like Japan has completed its transition and there has been virtually no growth for twenty ears and a constant "crisis". 

The changing population pyramid will change society. Many manufacturers, service providers and retailers are adapting their offers to be more appealing to rapidly growing groups of elderly, who are also used to be active consumers (earlier generations of old people were still not raised as “consumers”). Politically, the care for the elderly was earlier mainly a question of relief for the working generation, and it was their perspective that dominated; the elderly were “objects” rather than subjects. Today it is the old people themselves that shape how care of them is developed with a combination of political action and letting their considerable wealth speak. Less observed, but equally important, is the shift in values that will come.

The demographic transition shape societies. The big cohorts of young people that characterized the youth of capitalism and industrialism is the demographic reflection of the expansion and pioneership. Like with so many other things one can also turn this on the head and say that it was this demographic structure that drove capitalism in its early stages. It is not only economic growth that is propelled by a big share of young people; it is also the values typical for the young such as rejection of traditions, rebellion, glorification of strength, risk taking and body culture. Our current society's glorification of youth stands in stark contrast to the attitudes of earlier cultures. 

Society, but also many old themselves has a kind of youth obsession. Old people are expected to behave as “old youth” in a similar way as children were treated as “small adults” some hundred years ago. Eighty year olds engage in mountaineering, speed dating, wind surfing or parachuting: 
Former President George H.W. Bush marked his 85th birthday on Friday the same way he did his 75th and 80th birthdays: He leaped from a plane and zoomed downward at more than 100 mph in free fall before parachuting safely to a spot near his ocean front home.[...] He told reporters that he jumped Friday for two reasons: to experience the exhilaration of free-falling and to show that seniors can remain active and do fun things." Just because you're an old guy, you don't have to sit around drooling in the corner," Bush said  (AP 2009).
 This is about to change. Other properties, other characteristics of being human, will be in higher esteem for elderly people. Properties like maturity and reflection and even slowness (e.g. Slow Food) itself. Add to that, values such as care, spirituality and safety, opposition to risk-taking. Care for things close and interest in the beauty of and satisfaction by the small things in life are also typical for age, in contrast to youth's taste of exploration, expansion and novelties. The values of the old are better adapted to the values needed in a sustainable society. The combined effect of the shift in values and the effect on growth, caused by an aging population will be a strong determining factor the coming century. 

read more

7 Billion and Peak Child

The population follows our production system


Monday, November 28, 2011

Money: The only way to assign value to anything is to sell it.

Adam Smith (1776) stated that labour is the real standard by which the value of commodities can at all times and places be estimated and compared, and money is only a nominal price. How far we have gone in those 240 years! Today the notion that labour represent the real value would be seen as quaint or perhaps communist, even if Marx was the one that realised that through capitalism, labour is no longer a standard value, but a commodity to be bought and sold for profit. Money is like an alphabet with only one sign says Alf Hornborg (2010). That is the reason for why you can't communicate any meaning with money, anything more nuanced than a call to consume, i.e. to use up resources. In the market society the only way to assign a value to anything is to sell it, which means that things that are outside the market circulation almost by definition has no value. Well, reality is a bit more complex than that, we know that our personal relationships are not traded and we certainly enjoy them, and most people still enjoy many free pleasures, but policy makers are increasingly discussing access to those freebees, such as a forest, in terms of willingness-to-pay-for. 

In economics, there are attempts to add more "real" values to ecosystem services and assign costs to the depletion of natural and social capital as well as to pollution. However, in order to have an impact on "policy makers" all this has to be expressed in dollars, in money. It's like the system of bride prices or dowry, where you assign material values to the union of two people. But as little as a dowry is an indicator of love are the values assigned to ecosystem services an expression of their real values. With money as the determinant of value, we make nature a subsystem of the economy. That is one reason for why the efforts of valuing environmental services are not sufficient to re-direct our economy from the path of self-destruction - and why it even can be negative in the long run. A similar problem we have in the valuation of work. By definition, market prices are always "right". This serves as a justification of that a business leader earns 100 times as much as his workers, or that an worker in the rich countries are "worth" twenty times as much as a worker in a poor country or fifty times as much as a small-holder farmer. In this way, money obscures the reality, and justifies the logic of exploitation and inequality. In the short term, as measures to slow down or even reverse environmental destruction, assigning values to environmental services, and fees for their use, or assigning costs to pollution makes a lot of sense, exactly because it works within the capitalist economic paradigm. In the longer term though, we need to find other ways because ecologist can't do a better job of managing capitalism than economists. 

We can also discuss the economic system in ecological terms, in biophysical terms. This makes a lot of sense, at least for analytical purposes, because our economy is a subsystem of the physical system we live in. The idea is to instead of expression of the economic system in monetary values, it is expressed in "real" values, such as land use, labour, tons of minerals extracted. What comes out of that is certainly very interesting as it clearly exposes destruction of nature; increase in entropy as well as the social disparities. From this, there is of course a big step to implement a system whereby our current currency would be attached to one or more of such "real" values. In the end, you would have to select one parameter, like gold was such a parameter for a long period, and once you do that you would experience problems.

(extract from Garden Earth)

The best painters in the romantic tradition: corporations

It is hardly a surprise that a broad study of the application of Corporate Social Responsibility shows that it is mostly hot air and high ambitions,  but little actual delivery. 

"The quality of environmental data in sustainability reports remains appalling at times, even today," said Dr Ralf Barkemeyer, a lecturer in CSR at Leeds and one of the team leaders. "In financial reporting to leave out an undisclosed part of the company in the calculation of profits would be a scandal. In sustainability reporting it is common practice. Put provocatively, companies get points for knowing where they want to go, but nobody seems to check whether this is where they are heading. Aspiration replaces performance."

As I write in Garden Earth :

"Not only products, but also companies can be certified for being environmentally friendly or socially responsible. The layman might believe that companies that have a certified environmental management system (ISO 14000 or EMAS) are performing better in the environmental arena than those companies that have no such system. This impression is enhanced by the certified companies, the consultants helping them and the certification bodies selling certificates stating compliance. They use expressions like “environment certified” or “eco certified” (118,000 and 83,000 hits on Google July 2010). These certifications mean not much more than that national legislation is followed; that the company has a system to control its environmental effects and that the environmental impact is monitored. It is also, typically, the worst industries that are keen on letting themselves be certified to these standards. There is less direct value in terms of improved performance from these systems than from eco-labels. Companies, nevertheless, or perhaps exactly because of this, are more keen on these systems. 

It is not negative as such, they still, mostly, perform better than they would without these systems, but it is misleading when they are promoted as making a big difference. In all fairness, there are companies that try. Swedish McDonald’s reuses 90 percent of all packaging: uses up to 90 percent renewable electricity: serves organic coffee and milk and has a ventilation system that adjusts itself to the numbers of visitors thereby saving a lot of energy (and money…) (McDonald’s 2008). Coca Cola aims to be “water neutral” by 2020 and Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, launched its biodiversity strategy in 2004 with a voluntary commitment to achieve ‘Net Positive Impact’ on biodiversity. To fulfil this commitment, the company first aims to reduce its impacts on biodiversity through avoidance, minimization and rehabilitation activities, and then aims for a positive impact through the use of biodiversity offsets and additional conservation actions (TEBB 2010). What this means in reality remains to be seen. 

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or just Corporate Responsibility is another concept that has been adopted by large part of business, cheered by governments and United Nations. The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, launched a CSR initiative called Global Compact in 1999. In the same manner as companies that produce rubbish get quality certification (ISO 9000) and the worst polluters are certified for their environmental managements systems (ISO 14000) companies committed to CSR are often involved in questionable business. The military contractor BAE shows their responsibility by lead free bullets and less poison in missiles and grenades causing less pollution (Porrit 2007). Scandal companies like Enron and many of the banks that were caught red-handed in the financial crisis 2008/2009 are among the pioneers in CSR. "
Jonathon Porrit commented on that the tobacco company BAT was identified as a "leader in sustainability" 2008, he said in the Guardian 
"Any case of so called leading companies in CSR that includes BAT is a sick joke." He added: "Central to sustainability and business models is fully priced risks and fully allocating capital properly. When any company is systematically mispricing risks and systematically misallocating capital it makes no sense to talk about corporate responsibility. We're going to have to face the fact some of the measures used to judge relative CSR performance are useless."
One reasons for why CSR will never bring substantial changes is that the business plan of corporations include the externalization of costs: The business plan of the factory is to produce externalities

To a very large extent, many of our industrial technologies are about producing "externalities". The industrial capitalist model extracts resources in distant places (destroying other peoples' nature and possibly livelihoods), it has workers do something with them and pay them only part of the added value, the cost of pollution is carried by the local communities, the cost of health care is footed by society, the cost of schooling the workers is covered by society etc. The products are sold at a profit and the waste is someone else's problem.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Don't buy organic instead of changing the world - do it as part of changing the world

Are there really any benefits for the farmers in developing countries that engage in organic or fair trade schemes?

A recent literature review casts doubts on the merit of "sustainability" certification systems. It includes studies of Fairtrade, Organic, Rainforest Alliance and the Forest Stewardship council. The authors Allen Blackman and Jorge Rivera note that rather few studies have a rigorous control against non-certified production, which is needed to form a scientific basis for claims that certification is beneficial for producers.

The 11 rigorous studies provided very weak evidence for the hypothesis that sustainable certification has positive environmental, social, or economic effects at the producer level. Only four of the 11 provided evidence of such benefits (Table 3). Of these four, all tested for economic effects. In two of these four studies, both on coffee, the authors remark that the benefits are either idiosyncratic or inconsistent (Arnould et al. 2009; Bolwig et al. 2009). The results of the remaining seven rigorous studies (two studies of environmental effects and five of social and economic effects) did not show that certification benefits producers.
As the authors note "the hypothesis that certification benefits the environment or producers is limited. More evidence could be generated by incorporating rigorous, independent evaluation into the design and implementation of projects promoting certification."

One of the few studies that show economic benefits is the one of Bolwig and others, The economics of smallholder organic contract farming in tropical Africa. I was personally engaged in those projects studied, in the EPOPA programme. It was successful mainly because it was designed with the explicit purpose to be commercial and increase farmers income (and hopefully because it was well implemented).It spoke less about sustainability and smallholder empowerment than most similar programs, but generated more direct results in terms of increased income, and with low costs compared to many other projects.

It is worrying, however, that there is so little result coming out of so big efforts, even more troubling considering that the vast majority of all situations with certified smallholders are in to form of "projects" where substantial external funds are used to support them. As a matter of fact, I have yet to come across any small farmer project with sustainability certification which has not benefited external support; most of them are even established by external actors.To include even more rigorous evaluations and scientific monitoring of the projects, as suggested by the authors, will make the projects even more donor dependent and consultant dependent, and decrease the efficiency of the deployment of resources substantially.

I think the jury is still out regarding the direct and indirect benefits of the sustainability schemes. But what should be clear, even without more scientific studies, is that the economic benefits, and environmental benefits are limited. And that is not because the schemes are bad. There is simply no way such schemes can shift global economic relations fundamentally. Not even Fair trade, which has this as it's focus is more than a marginal adjustment of fundamental factors such as unjust trading relations and an ongoing exploitation of smallholders; limited access to resources and therewith associated low labor productivity; and inequality. As a matter of fact there is no particular evidence that fair trade farmers have any higher income than organic ones.

Note that this study is about farms in developing countries, there are numerous studies about farms in developed countries that show environmental benefits for organic farming. When it comes to economy it is a more complex picture. But clearly, organic farms in developed countries are exposed to the same commercial pressures as non-organic and respond in more or less the same way: more specialization, larger farms, more input buying etc., because that is the logic of the competitive market economy, whether you like it or not.

My suggestion is not that we should throw the sustainability schemes overboard, but that we should realise that they will not make the Big Difference which is needed to reach a fair(er) world. Go on and buy organic, but don't do it instead of changing the world, but as part of changing the world. 

Read also:


Friday, November 18, 2011

Stop pretending there are only winners in the global market

 Obama: "Increase Competitiveness"!
"My principal focus, my number one focus, is going be making sure that we are competitive, that we are growing, and we are creating jobs not just now but well into the future"
What is striking is that the same groups that emphasize that there are only winners and no losers with globalization; 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 in 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 it 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?

There are inherent inequalities that drive the global trade. The global "division of labour" that is the basis for globalisation is as much a global "division of power" as the difference between the capitalist industrialist and his workers. Alf Hornborg shows how, in 1850, when England swapped cotton fabric for 1000 pounds with cotton lint for the same sum, it corresponded to an exchange of 4,000 hours of work in a textile mill with more than 32,000 hours in tropical cotton production, as well as the resource of 58 hectares of land (Hornborg 2006). All factors point to that the patterns of exploitation inherent in globalization are the same today. It is mainly because of the big difference in purchasing power of the "rich" as opposed to the poor that the rich can benefit from the cheap coffee from Nicaragua, the cell phone from China or the service of the call centre in the Philippines. And it is the knowledge of this that makes it so important "to keep the edge".
The text is derived from Garden Earth
"Competitiveness, which is usually measured in terms of unit labor costs, is a relative concept. One country’s gain is another’s loss. Restoring competitiveness in some member countries (Spain, Greece) would require others (Germany in the first instance) to accept deterioration in theirs." writes Daniel Gros in an relevant post, Europe's Competitiveness Obsession

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Some good news from Brussels

It is always nice to have something positive to say. Below is my leader for the last issue of The Organic Standard

Congratulations, is the right greeting for the more than thirty certification bodies that have recently been approved by the European Union as providing equivalent guarantees that organic products are produced to standards equivalent to those within the European Union.

And congratulations are also in order for the Commission which managed to take this decision. It took two years. Hopefully we will see the process handled quicker in the future. It is hard to know the reasons why the process was so slow, apart from the fact that there seems to be a constant lack of human resources to implement increasingly complex regulations, developed by the European Union. As a result of the lack of transparency
- no list of applicants has, for example, been published - in the dealings of the European Union we are often left to guess when discussing the work of the Commission. For more than a year there was no communication from the Commission to the applicants. Initially, the Commission believed that it could make a simple ‘yes or no’ decision based on each applicant’s initial submission.

It appears, however, that hardly any certification body would have been approved if the Commission had followed that line. So finally, the Commission was forced to communicate
with the applicants. It appears that many of the well established European certification bodies and their accreditation bodies were a trifle too self-confident that they would be
approved and they paid the price. It is known that European accreditation bodies were disgruntled that many of the certification bodies that they have accredited did not get approval by the EU. Likewise, some Member States were not happy that certification
bodies based in their countries failed. Two times the organic committee failed to reach a decision on the list, but on the third attempt they approved it with only minor changes. The Commission should have credit for staying the course.

The winners are the underdogs; those certification bodies that for years have fought hard for acceptance in a competitive field where the EU based certification bodies had a much
easier access to approval. It is also a great victory for the International Organic Accreditation Services (IOAS). A substantial proportion of the certification bodies approved by the Commission are accredited by the IOAS, which means that their standard was assessed by the IOAS. The IOAS has had to fight for recognition by providing excellent service, competing in the EU with national accreditation bodies that are often considered ‘competent by default’ as they have nobody checking them.

There are still things in the model that need improvement. Current decisions are limited to a particular country, and certification bodies must prove that they have worked in a particular country to have this country included in their approval. This will be possible in a transitional situation where products can also be approved in other ways. But once the old import approval system is discarded, this will pose real problems for all those that work mainly with EU exports, a classic catch-22 situation. There are similar issues associated with how the scope of approval will be extended to include new product categories and
even a new standard. In addition, the system has not solved the problem of new entrants. If a certification body operates in a market where certification services are basically demanded for exports, how does it get its first approval if it has to demonstrate proof of actual operation? Which clients will buy the certification body’s services if it is not approved? The Commission should look into how its own Members States have solved this, and offer those on the others side of the frontier the same opportunities.

For a long time the EU offered import approvals based on single lots. These were administered by the Member States, and though it was a messy and unpredictable system it
did provide a pragmatic solution to a problem. A big step forward took place when the USA opened up direct accreditation of certification bodies as an option for imports, rather than
only approving countries. This appeared to be a lot better than the EU system, however, as more countries introduced the same system it is also apparent that such a system is very
resource-demanding. Some certification bodies pay the US Department of Agriculture more than fifty thousand dollars for their accreditation. Paying such sums for dozens, or even
hundreds, of separate accreditations is simply not rational. Also, insisting that overseas farmers comply in minute detail to the accrediting country’s standards is very far from
an organic perspective. The world needs to move towards a situation where one approval, one standard and one supervision is enough. The EU system is not there but it certainly is a
big step in the right direction.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tale from the sandpit

Once upon a time there were two producers of sand, Henry and Loser. They dug out the sand from the same place, with a shovel and a wheelbarrow. The sand was sold at the side of the road to by-passers. They didn’t earn a lot but enough to survive, to send their children to school, and buy a new wheelbarrow and shovel every other year. The little they could save was used for funerals or if someone in their families fell sick, or had an accident.

One day, for reasons we don’t have to discuss here, Henry was able to buy an excavator. It was expensive and the fuel is also expensive – but still, he can dig sand thousand times faster then before. And he can dig longer hours, his machine works all around the clock and he has bought a truck to supply customers with sand. Through the increased productivity sand prices fall, and therefore consumption increases. More houses and roads are built, the wealth increases. Henry produces more and more sand.
 Taste the word “produce” by the way. Doesn’t that give the impression that Henry creates something, that he creates the sand? In our way of speaking we say that we “produce” when we dig up a piece of nature and sell it. And “our wealth increases”? How, when there is less and less sand left and one has to dig deeper and deeper to get it, can we say that wealth increases? Pertinent questions, but let’s put them aside and look at Loser.
 Loser leads a hard life. The price of sand falls again and again, and the clients now want to have the sand delivered to their doorstep. And the sand is deeper and further away as Henry’s excavators dig more and more. Clients also have very specific demands on the sand, it should be graded in various fractions and there must be no ”foreign” materials. One day a client even asked about the social conditions for Loser’s employees.

Loser looked at him with an empty look: “I have no employees, it is just me and my family.”
“How much do you pay yourself? And what about the children, do they go to school?” the conscientious client asked.
Loser had to admit that he had to take one of the boys out of school to help carry the sand to the clients and that one girl had been taken out of school as they no longer could afford her school uniform, books and pencils. The conscientious client said, “we can no longer buy from you; I am sure you understand that we have to take social responsibility.”

Another client was concerned that Loser was destroying nature, “Didn’t you destroy a fox burrow the other year, when expanding the sand pit?”
“Well I did”, Loser said, “but Henry’s excavators are driving this, they take almost all sand; the little I dig up makes hardly any difference”.
The client replied, “Henry has an environmental policy; he offsets damages here by protecting precious sand dunes in Morocco. Also, he made a very nice mountain bike track for the children in old parts of the pit. He is a good example of corporate responsibility, while you are just destroying the environment.”

As you might have realized by now, life was hard for Loser. Every year his income shrank. When the wheelbarrow broke down, he couldn’t buy a new one. Another child had to quit school and carry the sand in buckets.

For a short while he had a rebound. A consultant from the regional development agency came and told him to look for another market niche; sell sand for special purposes and not “commodity-sand”. “There is a huge demand” the consultant said, “and there is special support for such local quality production” he said, before driving off in his SUV leaving a cloud of dust in his tracks. As long as the support kept coming in it was okay. The support ended, clients were unreliable and fads came and went and as soon as some business was lucrative enough Henry went in and out-competed him. One day Loser had to throw in the towel for good. He now lives on social support.

Our little story shows what happens in an unequal world with free trade and access to fossil fuel; where the price of oil determines the “value” of human labor. That is one of the most important factors in the story. It is simply not possible for human muscle power to compete with fossil fuel driven machinery. We might think that gas is expensive, but a barrel of oil has as much energy as 14 peoples’ annual labor. The absolute poverty line is 1 dollar per day, which is more or less the lowest salary one can pay any place on earth. Even with such deplorable salary, the cost for 14 peoples annual work is around 5,000 dollars, while a barrel of oil costs 100 dollars.

For sure, once can’t compare oil and human toil one-to-one. Human labor has skills and intelligence. True, that is why we have machines to convert energy into something useful. The market is also rarely as “free” as in this example; people with so varied conditions hardly compete next to each other. Some simplifications are made. But with cheap transportation technologies and largely deregulated markets differences in market conditions have plummeted, and prices for most commodities are converging on the planet.

Some may also say that there is rarely such a competition for resources as in this example. To some extent this is true, but seen in a global perspective and long term, there is just one planet with a certain quantity of any resource.  The first oil brought into the industrial economy was available, in good quality, in abundant shallow reserves on land and was therefore very cheap to extract. Oil is now pumped from big depth under difficult conditions, and qualities are often lower, simply because the best sources are long depleted. To be closer to the example, there is even a global market for sand, which is a scarce resource in some places, for example, Singapore imports sand from the USA.

The relevance of our story is most easily seen in agriculture, where farmers using the most basic hand tools, such as a hoe or a spade, are competing with farmers who have a machine fleet that is worth millions of dollars. In this case, the labor of the small farmer is competing with oil and machinery. Making things even more absurd, the highly mechanized farmers are subsidized by their governments. To borrow money for an investment costs them a few percent in interest rate, while the poor have to pay twenty to forty percent interest rates for loans – if they can get any. The conditions for competition in the so-called “free market” are exactly so skewed.

The brutal truth is that there is no future for most of the half a billion small farmers of the world in this market place.  A few can survive by going for niche, organic or high-value products, others have to migrate out of the farm sector, and they do. There are, however fewer employment opportunities for them than there were for my grandparents in Sweden who could go from farming to industries that needed workers. And there is no space for the farmers to invest so that they could compete more fairly with “us”.

These are the conditions that we should discuss when we discuss global poverty and starvation (and not increasing GMOs or the use of chemical fertilizers). These are the conditions which actually make the poor poorer. The neo-liberal market doctrines can’t produce viable solutions to the poverty trap of billion people.

We must realize that a “free” market in a deplorably unequal world is not “free” at all. One percent of the world’s population controls around half of all wealth and gaps are widening. When we have so different access to resources, a free market creates bigger gaps and not only relative but also absolute poverty.

The way out? Well, I don’t say it is easy. I don’t claim that we will solve the problems with government regulations, tariffs and government monopolies – in most cases these have had devastating effects. The first step is to clearly see the problems that are generated by a capitalist market economy and fossil fuel, and realize that their root causes are systemic and structural. The solutions are therefore to be found in alternatives to this.  How they can look like is a subject of another fairy tale.

”One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting 
to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
– André Gide
This was first published on my Swedish blog and now in English on the excellent Post Growth blog.  Other posts on Post Growth that are closely related to this one are:
 Four Degrees of Sharing, Two Myths That Keep The World Poor,  Freedom from money

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Carbon Markets - a corporate Trojan Horse?

Carbon farmers

Both the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO (2003), and the World Bank promote that carbon emission trading should encompass also carbon sequestration (sinks) in soils, i.e. that farmers could get paid for increasing soil organic matter. The carbon sink capacity of the world's agriculture and degraded soils is said to be 50% to 66% of the historic carbon loss from soils or some 42-78 Gt of carbon (FAO 2009). Measures in the farm sector for mitigation of climate change are among the cheapest measure to take, and in many cases, they also lead to other environmental improvements (reduced water pollution). Increased soil organic matter also leads to richer soils; to soils that can keep water and resist erosion longer. A major hurdle is that there are so many farmers and their conditions are very diverse;  it is very hard to determine exactly how much carbon a farmer will capture if he or she does this or that. To measure it on an individual level will be very costly. A new scenario emerges where farmers in developing countries can sell their services as carbon farmers to governments and companies in the developed countries. This could become a business replacement for aid, or a way to compensate developing countries farmers for absurd subsidies to their competitors in developed countries. 

But it also means that a larger part of their activities are integrated into the world economy, in the market economy. It can also be seen as a new frontier of exploitation, where the rich countries will use the land in developing countries as "dumping" ground for their waste, which is what this eventually amounts to. 

I recently wrote a report for UNEP where I had drawn this graph: 
Carbon changes in the soil
download report

It is important to keep in mind that once farmers have got compensation for the carbon stored in their sold through the means of carbon credits, they are forced to maintain practices that keeps the carbon there. One could say that they actually don't own their soil organic matter no more.They don't control how they manage their own soils.

Australia has already a Carbon Rights Act: 
The Carbon Rights Act 2003 establishes a statutory basis for the ownership and protection of carbon rights, in order to facilitate trading. It enables a carbon right to be registered on the land title as a separate interest in that land. The Act provides that a carbon right may be registered with the consent of all parties having an interest in the relevant land.....Owning a carbon right is like owning land. The title guarantees who owns the land (or carbon right). The market will determine what the land (or carbon right) is worth, based on a wide range of factors including how the land is used.

In this way, carbon payments can become a Trojan horse for large scale corporate take over of the land. 

Farmers question what they’ll get out of cap-and-trade
Pay farmers 'to deposit carbon' says businessman
Africa’s pollution and land grab threat from UN carbon market
Biofuel demand and CO2 quotas drive violent land grabs in Honduras
Land grabbing in the neocolonial order
Land grabbing, corporate farming to deepen hunger, poverty, and unemployment: Moot

There are similar issues around carbon credits for forests, for instance read: 
Beyond Carbon: Rights-based Safeguard Principles in Law
Forest carbon rights for poor at risk – study
It is your forest but my carbon

Sunday, October 30, 2011

7 Billion and Peak Child

These days we reach 7 billion people on the planet (Huffpost,Chicago Tribune, bbc, In Swedish SvD, ABEkot, ). And we hear forecasts for some 9 billion at 2050. Still, at the same time we appear to have reached Peak Child, that is, the number of children has peaked, and the growth of population the years to come is mainly an effect of people leaving longer and longer. Also in developing countries, populations are ageing.

Below is an Extract from Garden Earth, about population:

The population follows our production system

Humans, like any other species that conquers a new habitat, shows an exponential population growth. What is unique for us is that we have been able to radically expand our ability to tame nature and other organisms and direct their production to our stomachs and our bodies. Instead of following a typical S-curve of growth, we have two times restarted population growth. The first time was with the introduction of agriculture, the so called Neolithic or agrarian revolution. Before that, our population grew mainly through expansion into larger and larger areas and into more and more ecological niches. Our role was more or less the same, we lived on the surpluses from other species, which we collected, hunted or fished depending on niche. Population growth was very low, perhaps just 0.001 percent per year (to be compared with 1.8 percent 1990). 12,000 years ago, we were probably less than ten million on the planet, and most likely, the ecological limits for further growth were reached. With the transition to agriculture, many more could be fed from a defined area, but not everywhere, as some parts of the world are not suitable for farming. A period of rapid growth ensued. In ten thousand years, the population grew 250 times. At the time of the industrial revolution, the population had reached the new ecological limits in many places in the world. Not so densely exploited areas were rapidly filling up with settlers from Europe, representing one third of the annual population growth of Europe. Through the deployment of huge amounts of fossil fuel, first coal followed by oil, we got the possibility to, once again, take a giant leap to new levels (Chapman and Reiss 1995, Livi-Bacci 1992).

Numbers are stabilizing

Forty-three countries, including Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy have populations that are stagnant or even decreasing. A larger group of countries, including China and the USA, has reached the stage where new families will be smaller. When next generation reaches fertile age, population will stabilize. The third group will have doubled its population from now to 2050. This group includes many of the African countries, such as Ethiopia, Congo and Uganda. The predictions of the UN have three alternatives for 2050, 10.8 billion, 9.2 billion or just below 8 billion. Most seem to bet on the middle alternative. That Malthus’ horror scenario of mass starvation has kept its appeal over two hundred years coincides with the start of the demographic transition of England following an unprecedented population explosion. And that pattern has been repeated in country after country, so in the same way as Ireland was the frightening example hundred-fifty years ago, Nigeria or Ethiopia are now. Studies of the demographic transition in the high income countries show a strikingly similar pattern in most countries. First death rates decline rapidly - and it is not primarily the old that live longer but more children that survive. This leads to very big cohorts of youth, reaching 35 percent to 40 percent of the population. When birth rates go down after a while, a big wave of people will reach the stages of young adults, mature adults and old people.

Why is population stabilizing?

It is perhaps a strange question, but it is much more remarkable that the demographic transition has taken place and that populations are not growing, than that there has been a population explosion. After all, we have been taught that the strongest driver of them all is to reproduce, to spread our genes. And why are populations stabilizing now and not hundred years earlier or hundred years later? Why is it not stabilizing in the countries where population is still growing? Is the reason technical, such as contraceptives; economic, such as increased wealth; human, such as improved education of women or is it social, perhaps a result of shift in values? It is interesting to understand what drivers which make individuals change their reproduction. There are actually very few reasons for why a European woman (or her possible partner) today only wants two children, while she wanted four some hundred years ago. It appears to completely contradict the socio-biological ideas that humans only act with the purpose to spread her genes. If that were the case, voluntary birth control would never occur. It is more a process of culture and values. For a long period, it was well known that smoking causes cancer and other diseases. Still it was a long and slow process until this insight led to a changed view on smoking and subsequent regulations. It is interesting that the view on smoking is now changing in all countries, also in countries where smoking is perhaps not a primary health problem (because people don’t live long enough to die from cancer). In the same way it appears that the regulation of populations have little to do with if the country is overpopulated or not. Sweden and the Netherlands stabilized their population more or less at the same time despite that the actual population density is very different, large tracts of Sweden are rather "underpopulated" if there is such a thing. So called soft factors, values and education, seem to play a big role here. At the same time, on a global level, it is hardly a coincidence that populations level off at the same time that we see more and more limits to growth.