Sunday, March 31, 2013

There is someone out there listening

Update: The number of readers continues to increase - 5,600 page views in April

The number of readers of the blog is increasing rapidly -page views reach 4,800 in March.

I like to believe it is a combination of that I have something to say and that the book Garden Earth has been published. The special web site for the book,, also has many visitors. On my Swedish blog, Trädgården Jorden, the visits are increasing, albeit not at the same rate.

Number of page views per month reached 4500 in April 2013
Tomorrow is April fool's day, and I can't possibly post anything - or?

Friday, March 29, 2013

The future is already here

Economic growth in most mature economies, such as Western Europe and Japan, has slowed down considerably. This should not be seen as a problem but as an opportunity. In most of them, and of course contributing to it, populations are no longer growing; in fact, popula­tion is decreasing in many countries or is stable or grows just because of immigration. This also means that these countries will be more positive towards, or will be coerced to accept, immigration.

Important technological developments, compatible with a sustain­able society, are already in the pipeline and will continue. Organic farming is already practised widely in Europe, up to almost 20% in Austria and Sweden. Even poor countries like Moldova, Bhutan and Rwanda are keenly adopting organic agriculture and consumers are responding by buying more and more. Wind energy is rapidly expand­ing and solar energy is finally close to a massive breakthrough. Some countries are increasing their use of biomass, without threaten­ing nature; for example, Sweden uses close to 40% renewable energy, of which biomass is a substantial part. Ecological houses or villages, passive houses (i.e. those without any active heating or cooling) and chimney-free or effluent-free factories are spreading.

Another interesting, and perhaps surprising, experience is the return of (some) wildlife to urban environments. There seem to be more deer in suburbia than in the wild. The Peregrine falcon breeds in London. Plants crack the asphalt and birds adapt their song to the noise of the city. New ecological niches are developed. Rabbits, raccoons, muskrats, skunks, and other small mammals, red-tailed hawks, ospreys, kestrels and other birds of prey are often spotted in densely packed neighbourhoods in New York. In 2007, a beaver was caught building a dam on a river in the heart of the Bronx, marking the animals’ very first return to the area since the end of the fur trade (Greenwire 2010).

The Internet and globalization have brought people closer; free­dom and human rights have become more or less global values. The respect for the environment is growing all the time and so is the awareness of our dependency both on the environment and on each other. The realization that some problems need global solutions is widespread.

Most people in high-income countries have already understood that a constant chase for more will not make one happier; most know that relationships and society are more important for the well-being of humankind than increased consumption. Human actions still follow mostly old patterns, but soon there will be a dip in Christmas shop­ping, not caused by economic crisis and/or guilt, but simply by lack of interest in more shopping. Gradually, people seeks to reduce risk, consumption and expansion and value safety, stability and proximity more.

The ever-increasing size and concentration in corporate businesses is already now counterbalanced by small-scale solutions, most visible in the food sector. On the one hand, the giant companies get bigger in terms of production, whole sales, processing and retail. On the other hand, as a counter reaction partly from consumers and partly from producers that are left behind in the process, new markets are created for speciality products. It is hard to know whether these local products will continue to be niche products. The strength in the ‘local’ is that it supports local economic development and that there is clear identity and responsibility for the production. It is rather the scale and the relationship that matter and not the distance as such; tightly knitted social networking on the Internet, in that sense, can also give the same feeling as shopping from the local farmer. It is more about connected­ness than about physical proximity.

Movements such as the Transition Movement, initiated in the early 2000s in the town of Totnes in the United Kingdom, primarily focus on the process of ‘energy descent’, the transition that is seen as inevitable after reaching peak oil and to counter climate change. The initiative spread quickly, and, as of May 2010, over 300 communities are recog­nized as official Transition Towns in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Italy and Chile. Transition US has the vision ‘that every community in the United States will have engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ulti­mately preferable to the present’ (Transition US 2012).

Local currencies are also spreading. The idea is to build strength and interdependence in the local economy by keeping money circulat­ing in the community and building new relationships. Apart from being an economic project local currencies also have a symbolic power, taking power from both nation-states and global markets into the hands of local communities. The association Jord Arbete Kapital (JAK) in Sweden operates an interest-free bank since 1965 with 37,000 members. It expanded rapidly in the early 1990s when Sweden underwent a serious financial crisis—as a result of a real estate crash—with interests soaring at 500%. ‘If my sister wants to borrow money, she can borrow it without interest,’ says JAK in a film.

I believe that all these initiatives are laudable by themselves, but they are not enough. Ultimately, one has to change the logic of the economic system, and here I speak about what influences the daily choices of individuals as consumers, labourers or companies. Future develop­ment is largely shaped by those choices. To educate consumers and companies in sustainable or fair consumption or production is good. To change the system that determines the incentives is even better.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Energy-efficient food production – sure but within reason

The forest was burning and the area was in a smoky haze when I visited Pedro. He and the other farmers were clearing land for farming at the edge of the mighty Amazon forest. This was the first time I had visited a farmer practicing swiddening, or slash and burn agriculture. I’d arrived with the idea that swiddening was a primitive method used only by ignorant farmers. I  had this image from my school days, the media and from my own love of forests. Clearly, it must be wrong to burn a forest just to grow crops for a few years. After this visit to Pedro, several other farm visits and a good deal of reading, I realized I was wrong. Partly, at least.

Swiddening is a good example of a method of farming that is rational from the perspective of the farmer. It is also environmentally benign if practiced in a limited extent. Fire is part of nature, and also pristine forests have burnt. Human use of fire has shaped many of the most impressive landscapes in the world, including the savannah and the prairies but also most forest landscapes. However, when population grows, or forest resources dwindle, what was once a good practice becomes negative.

The success of a species is mainly about its ability to capture energy

We get a confusing array of messages about food and diets. Now and again we are advised to eat local, to become vegans, to eat raw food etc. In many of these messages, ethical, environmental and nutritional messages are mixed – and mixed up. Unfortunately it is quite possible to eat ethically produced or procured but nutritionally disastrous food! It is equally possible to eat environmentally benign foods that score badly on animal welfare.

This post is mainly about energy. The reason is that regardless of all other considerations, energy comes first. The whole ecological system is built on energy levels, and the success of a species is mainly about its ability to capture energy. The enormous ‘success’ of humans can, to a large extent, be seen as an ever increasing command over energy resources. 

When we were hunters and gatherers, we captured the energy in game, fish, leaves and plants. While expending energy for hunting or digging, we got energy—in the form of food. When we lived by ‘capture’, we could only skim the surplus of nature. We had to capture as much food-energy as possible from the system to produce and reproduce. Reproduce not only children, but also the small society, the band, to which we belonged. This also included taking care of the elderly and sick, throwing the odd big party to keep spirits high, diverting energy to rock paintings, hair braiding, nose ringing and other cultural expressions. This is the real iron law of human civilization:

A society must command sufficient energy to reproduce itself and its members. 

When we started using fire to cook, we made food more palatable. Some claim that we started getting20–25% more energy from cooked food and that this also allowed our brain to grow (In other words, we were smart to discover fire, and that discovery led us on to become even smarter). The energy contained in the wood we burned largely surpassed the increased energy uptake from the food we cooked. It is important to note that this also meant that at that point, we already developed an energy-deficient food system.

Some capturing societies did manipulate their environment a lot in order to ’”produce’ more of the kind humans like (such as bison) and less of those that humans don’t like (wolves and tigers). Some dropped nuts in fertile soils to have more nuts to collect, and cleared the bush that threatened to crowd out that mouth-watering herb. Some had a tame dog as part of the hunting party.  

Initially there was no distinct line between capturing societies and agrarian societies. A major shift happened when agrarian societies began to manipulate nature to serve man, and dramatically shifted the composition of plants and animals to those desired by man. Domestication of animals and plants to use them for directly servicing us were key steps in this shift. Some level of preparing the land was also part of this. Fire came in handy in this. My visits to farmers practicing slash and burn in Latin America, Africa and Asia taught me that burning down trees is one of the easiest ways to prepare land for farming.

Swiddening allows farmers to save on labor which is why farmers stick to this practice even today, regardless of how much environmentalists complain. However, the energy wastage is enormous. If we assume that about 100 cubic meters  of wood per hectare of land is burnt and that the land is used for farming for three years, it would mean that about 35 cubic meters of wood is ‘used’ per year. That would correspond to the energy of about 3 cubic meters of oil, which would mean appalling energy efficiency, worse than most industrial systems.

Even if agriculture is no longer the key source of income for most people, it still represents the main livelihood for at least one third of the planet’s population. Expenses on food and all its associated items is the key expenditure for perhaps half of the world’s households and it constitutes a big part of the household budgets of even the wealthy. Food and the consumption of food are important social institutions and social markers—tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are!

Finally, agricultural landscapes now cover more than half of the earth’s land surface. This means that to a large extent, how we manage agriculture is how we manage the ecosystems of the land. Agriculture is also the key contributor to climate change after the energy sector. And if we count the whole food chain, including all ancillary energy use and emissions of all sorts in the chain, food and agriculture is even more important.

Therefore, how we farm and feed ourselves is still of utmost importance. And when food prices rise, which they did in 2008 and again in 2012, it worries even the rich parts of the world.

There is no coincidence that when oil prices soar, food prices follow suit.

When oil prices soar, food prices normally follow. There are many reasons for this:
“Farming uses energy in many different forms: diesel for tractors and pumps; electricity for pumps, fans and indoor machinery such as milking machines, etc. Fertilizers represent a big energy use. Energy represents 90% of the production costs for nitrogen fertilizers, 30% for phosphorus fertilizers and 15% for potassium fertilizers. For production in the United States, energy costs represented 22–27% of the production costs for wheat, maize and cotton and 14% of the production costs for soybeans. These figures do not include embedded costs in buildings, machinery, etc., so the actual share of the costs is substantially higher. In Argentina, energy costs were calculated to 43% of production costs in 2006. [...] Increased energy prices influence food prices:
·     by making the production more expensive;
·     by making biofuel more interesting to produce and, therefore, reducing the production of food, leading to higher prices;
·     through increased transport costs that directly reflect on food prices; and
·     through reduced competition in the food sector (increased transport costs means that the pressure of global competition is reduced).
(Garden Earth, Gunnar Rundgren 2012)

Energy plays a big role after the farm gate as well. As a matter of fact, energy use is much higher after the farm gate. This is particularly marked in industrialized countries. For example, the whole food chain consumes around 16% of the total US energy use. Farm operations consume only 14% of the total energy in the food sector while handling, processing and retail on the one hand and preparation on the other, use more or less equal shares of the rest. 

As we saw earlier, considerable quantities of energy is used in cooking in agricultural societies as well. “Cooking represents more than a fifth of the total energy consumption in Africa and Asia and up to over 90% of household energy consumption in some countries. Another observation is that energy used for cooking is more than the total energy in food. So while farming in developing countries and by traditional systems is energy efficient, cooking is not.” (Garden Earth, Gunnar Rundgren 2012). Some figures point towards the fact that consumers in rich countries use less energy for food preparation. Admittedly, the food industry in these nations has a large proportion of pre-cooked food in the markets.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that to deliver the average American’s 2,000 Calorie diet requires nearly 32,000 Calories of energy inputs (Energy Use in the U.S Food System, Canning et al., 2010).

Horrified by this, Eric Ganza wrote an interesting essay, In Pursuit of an Energy-Positive Food System, in which he calls for “the need to adopt a food system with a positive energy balance”. I believe this is overshooting the target. Also in the old days, there were several steps in the food chain that used more energy than they produced. Water or wind mills used a lot of energy to grind the grains into flour. Baking is not very energy efficient when compared to making porridge. And not to mention  the enormous expense in terms of both money and man-power to get spices from the East Indies to Europe.

That our food system has a bad energy ratio by itself is not an argument that it is fundamentally wrong. If that were so, all human civilization would be fundamentally wrong. Well, even life is wrong as plants are highly inefficient as well.

Approximately 130 Joules of energy per square centimeter reaches the earth as solar radiation. Some of this energy is absorbed by the atmosphere directly or is reflected. Of the 91 J reaching the surface of the planet, 18 J is reflected, 31 J is radiated as heat, 36 J is used for the evaporation of water, 6 J heats the soil and only about 1 J is locked by plants as chemical energy. It is this little part, less than 1% of the sunlight that reaches the earth’s surface that is the plants’ share of solar energy. And it is this tiny fraction that is used for food, fodder, fiber and biofuels. Or rather, it is only a part of this tiny fraction as the whole plant is rarely used. If one calculates backwards from the crops actually harvested, we find that in 1993 harvested products represented only 0.4% of the solar energy reaching the fields. Of this 0.4%, only 61% was actually used; that is, real use was only around 0.25% of the solar energy reaching the ground.

Therefore, when seeking alternatives to today’s food chains, to have net energy production as a prerequisite might lead us in the wrong direction. Even worse would be to say that we should not use any ancillary energy in the farming system. Additional energy is not always wrong. For example, a smaller quantity of water for irrigation, such as in a nursery or at a critical period of the growth of the crop, can make an enormous difference in yield. Cooking remains an essential part of human life even if it is “a waste of energy”.

The problem today is more with the scale and quantity. As I write in Garden Earth:
“...the total energy harvested per hectare can increase with increased use of ancillary energy; one can increase yield per hectare fivefold with the use of more energy. This energy can be in the form of better (and more timely) soil preparation, irrigation, fertilizers, etc. The ratio between energy output and energy input (i.e. efficiency in use of energy) seems to be fairly constant to a certain level after which it rapidly deteriorates. In industrial farming systems, the optimal use level has since long been passed”.

Energy ratios in agriculture present an interesting perspective but conclusions can’t be taken to the extreme. First we are, at least not yet, in a situation where we have to equalize energy in food and energy in oil, nuclear power and hydro-power. At first glance, one might even consider such comparisons absurd. And they are absurd, if we think that there will be unlimited supplies of energy in the future. Not too many believe that any more. All staple foods (i.e. the foods that provide the bulk of nutrition) are foods with a positive energy balance in their traditional way of production. If that were not the case, they would never have been staple foods in the first place. Second, calories alone don’t give value to food. In such a case, it would be best to stick to sugar (and sugar cane is one of the most energy-efficient crops). Vegetables will always be inferior to grain when it comes to energy ratios. They contain a lot of minerals and vitamins, however. Meat is not primarily consumed for its energy content but for its protein content. Finally, some food is eaten simply because it tastes good or for religious or cultural reasons.

 Bon appetite! 

Market i Vang Vien, Lao PDR Jan 2012

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Web site for Garden Earth - the book

From now on, information about the book Garden Earth will be posted on the web site,

Below, you can read the concluding short chapter of the book.

33 –
Garden Earth
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
(John Lennon, ‘Imagine,’ 1971)
Hunters and gatherers lived in a wild nature, although they manipulated it more than most are aware. Their values, religion and society were shaped by their environment and ecological niche. A small fraction of the primary production of ecosystems was taken care of by human beings. With agriculture, it all changed. A part of nature, gradually growing, was occupied fully by the human species, cleared from undesired species and put directly, and uniquely, in our service. In this way, we maximized our share of the biological production, and favoured those species that produced what we needed. Because of more intensive use, buffers were smaller and agrarian society was thus vulnerable to disturbances and shocks, such as climatic events, disease of crops and animals as well as of ourselves. Soil erosion was an ever-present threat and a cause of societal collapses or simply slow decline. Our relationship changed not only with nature but also with each other and with the society that was established to manage this new system. Human society changed from a basically egalitarian society of small bands to agglomerations of authoritarian lordships, kingdoms and empires, and from a society with very limited division of labour to a stratified society where each had his or her well-defined role.

With the Industrial Revolution, based on fossil fuel, human control and reach expanded even more, to almost all nooks and corners of the globe. Humankind went further, climbed and flew higher, dived and dug deeper—all in the effort to find more resources to exploit. More and more parts of the living as well as the dead were put in direct service of humanity. Industrialism also brought new impetus to farming. The first stage brought tools and the power to extend the land under plough, but gradually also more and more machinery to in¬crease productivity per labourer. This was stimulated by an increased use of fossil fuel so that farming from being a net producer of energy became a net consumer. Chemical fertilizers, extracted, manufactured and shipped from far away, were a step towards freeing agriculture from the limitations of the site, to manipulate life processes. These changes were also accompanied by increased use of pesticides and medicines. Now, when the rich supply of genes in nature doesn’t suffice, or there are natural barriers for combining them as desired, genetic manipulation is used.

At the same time as we are dependent on more and more of the bio-geosphere, people live lives increasingly more distanced from it. The warmth doesn’t come from wood that we cut in forests, but from distant power plants, district heating or oil and gas pumped from far away. We rarely touch the soil; the green plants most touch are retarded, tamed and flower-induced pot plants, if they are not plastic. We rarely feel the hot wind on our cheek, the rain in our hair or the bitter cold in our marrow. Still, we are more dependent on nature than ever before. Nature doesn’t care for humankind because it will survive well without it, but humankind has to care about nature.

Modern society has been successful in delivering personal wealth and economic growth, for a few people, that is. It has also broken down old prejudice and expanded human rights, freed people from bonded labour and other oppressive institutions. It has come a long way in ending discrimination of women and other groups often victimized, and been extremely successful in producing more things for the health, comfort and joy of human beings. The system, however, has not been successful in replacing the old system with a new one that gives people a feeling of meaning. Personal wealth and growth have become ends in themselves to such an extent that they remind of cancer.

The economic system and society have reached a critical limit through population explosion, unscrupulous and reckless exploitation of natural resources and constantly increasing energy use. For some resources, the limits have been passed already, which puts increasing pressure on societies, the global community of human beings and the foundations for human existence. We hunt for more and more things and satisfaction through consumption; the enormous choices haven’t made anyone happier. Unprecedented wealth is created, but it has not spread to most citizens of the world, despite everyone living in the same global economy. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Despite constant increased productivity leisure time doesn’t increase; contrarily, one’s leisure time and private sphere are invaded by the capitalist paradigm and behaviour patterns—to consume becomes a compulsion as strong as to work.

The capitalist system is a system of colonization, bent and suitable for geographical, physical and economic expansion. Society has now reached a stage of saturation; there is nothing left to colonize. The behaviours that were appropriate or at least acceptable for a species in rapid expansion are not the ones suitable for a life in balance. In some ways humanity seems to adapt to it—how else would one explain population ceasing to grow in developed countries? Organic farming, passive heating, electrical bicycles and solar energy represent technological developments better adapted to ‘householding’ societies with regenerative economics. The wild finds new ways of cohabiting with human beings and human beings find new ways of interacting with the wild. Cooperation within civil society has increased tremendously globally and is revived locally. There is a shift in values, where more and more people want to jump off the treadmill and seek that which gives ‘real’ well-being. This maturity is reinforced by the population ageing. The values of older people are adverse to risk and expansionism, and are more reflective and caring.

In the discussion about growth and limitations for human use of natural resources, it should not be forgotten that the poorest third of humanity needs to increase its use of natural resources, while the rest of humanity takes a break and enjoys life. This increased use is certainly not decoupled from direct exploitation of resources; it is the development of very real things such as electricity, houses, roads, water and sewage. Still, many old and new technologies can be deployed to make this growth less wasteful than previous modernization; these technologies include solar energy, distributed power, separation of water toilets from other water use, or buildings made from adobe, etc.

Most people have not yet realized the extent of the change required; humankind needs a completely new economy, a new society. Another society has to be built on values and conditions other than those of the capitalist society. It is a society oriented to closing gaps—gaps between people, between man and woman, between ruler and ruled, between ‘we’ and ‘them’, between one country and another and between man and nature. It is about unifying the many divisions that currently exist—division of labour, division between production and consumption, between work and leisure, between the individual and society, between economy and society and between beauty and efficiency.

As an alternative vision to the capitalist ideology, I offer Garden Earth.
  • Where capitalism sees self-interest as the major human driver, Garden Earth is built on human needs satisfied in many ways and with voluntary cooperation.
  • Where capitalism is based on private property, the foundation for Garden Earth is stewardship of common resources.
  • Where capitalism sees nature as commons free to exploit, to mine and to use as a dumping ground, Garden Earth sees nature as our home.
  • Where capitalism sees specialization and division of labour as something very good, Garden Earth sees it as a potential evil, a risk that needs to be limited and its effects on individuals and society mitigated.
  • Where human energy in capitalism is used for salaried labour that a few profit from, in Garden Earth people work for their satisfaction and for doing something for the community.
  • Where technology in capitalism is developed and chosen to maximize some peoples’ profits, in Garden Earth it is selected to make life more enjoyable or transcend resource limitations.
We need each other and the existing form for our cooperation is what is called society or community. It is ruled by laws of nature, ecological conditions, human laws, norms inherent in our culture and values. The human being is part of society and vice versa. The well-being of humankind and society is intricately intertwined forever. Markets, the state, civil society and the private have roles to play in the future society. It is about expanding liberty and the notion of liberty to include also the capabilities of the individual and to resolve the false contradiction between the freedom of the individual and that of society.

We simply have to go back to the Garden of Eden. But we can no longer do so as the hunters and gatherers who were driven out. Humankind is no longer equal to the giraffe, the carrot or the sheep, even less to the stone. Man is part of nature; thus, the well-being of human beings and of other species is intertwined. Because of the numbers, intelligence and development of the human species, we have a special responsibility for the survival of other species and for the relative stability and productivity of the earth’s ecosystems. Whether or not we like it, the survival of not only the human species but also many other species is in the hands of the human being.

Lagom is good enough

Lagom, a Swedish word, is perhaps a key concept for a really sustainable society.  According to popular but contested folk etymology, it is a contraction of "laget om" ("around the team"), a phrase used in Viking times to specify how much mead one should drink from the horn as it was passed around so that everyone received a fair share. The closest you could come in English would be: just right”.

Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill authors of Enough is Enough, take on the task of how to build a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources. They say, ”Perhaps the most important number is one - one single blue green planet with finite resources that we all must share”

Enough Is Enough: finally a book of practical solutions to restore your hope!The book is well written and the arguments are convincing. Apart from all the facts in the book, each chapter has an introductory story with a nice personal touch. Contrary to most books in the genre, Dietz and O'Neill spend more pages explaining how a no-growth economy would look like rather than why perpetual growth is neither possible nor desirable. They do both jobs well.

Both authors are affiliated with the Center for Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). And “steady-state-economy” is the term the center use to describe a no-growth economy. They do ask their readers to come up with a more catchy and sexy term. However, trying to change the world is very different from selling soap, and I believe we underestimate people when we assume that we have to sell” them a catchy phrase.

In the first part of the book, Dietz and O'Neill debunk the ideas of decoupling” and trickle-down economics”. They do that well by providing a number of facts. For example, for every $100 of economic growth, only 60 cents reach the billion poor in the world. This is based on a report from the New Economic Foundation, available here. Clearly this is a decidedly inefficient way of distributing wealth. As they state: someone is profiting from economic growth, but it is not the world's poor.”

There are a number of interesting observations or ideas discussed in the book. For example:
·      Just as several aspects of our current society have all reinforced each other—for example, population growth, competition, cheap oil and technology; crisis situations also have such self-reinforcing sides. The authors point out that we should expect such cascading effects in the process of building a steady-state economy as well.
·      The best ways to achieve well-being are those that take time, consume none or few resources, and are for free.
·      The purpose” of the financial sector is to facilitate and intermediate between business and investment, and the costs for this is a burden to the rest of the economy. The fact that the financial sector takes an ever increasing share of the economic growth is not a sign of health or of any improvements in our livelihoods.

In parts two and three of the book, Dietz and O'Neill outline the strategies of reaching a steady state economy (part two) and the actions to be taken (part three). Both parts of the book are very interesting. One can also see that here the authors, self admittedly, are in unchartered territory. This is reflected in some redundancy and a vague division between parts two and three.

They call for changes on a number of strategically selected institutions in our economy and attitudes in our society. In their opinion, investments should generate social and environmental returns instead of financial returns; labor productivity can be perused to reduce and minimize unpleasant work, but not to take away jobs that bring joy and meaning; new forms of ownership (e.g. social enterprises) need to be developed and some existing forms (e.g. cooperatives) need to be revitalized instead of us being stuck in the choice between private and public; and finally we need to rethink our relationship to nature. They refer to these four thoughts as the foundation” of a steady growth economy.

In their opinion, ten pillars of policy directions” are needed. They include:
1.     Limit resource use and waste production
2.     Stabilize population
3.     Distribute income and wealth equitably
4.     Reform monetary and financial systems
5.     Change the way we measure progress (goodbye GDP)
6.     Secure full employment (by job-sharing and guaranteed jobs)
7.     Rethink how businesses create value
8.     Replace the culture of consumerism with a culture of sustainability
9.     Stimulate political debate about limits to growth
10.  Change national goals regarding growth and improve international cooperation

With these “pillars” in place, we can move towards a society that is sustainable and equitable and where human well-being is the centerpiece of life. Dietz and O'Neill present an appealing vision of how such a transformed society could look like.

Such a transition will require changes in institutions, laws, constitutions, attitudes and distribution of wealth. I find that the book mixes “hard” and soft” factors (see the list above) in a not so clear way. In fact, for the soft factors there is often no path on how to get there. It is one thing to say that we want more equality. There is, I believe, already a broad public agreement on this, but still differences are forever increasing. This example shows that there is a fundamental need to re- distribute assets and not just to change attitudes.

Like many others, the two authors question the use of GDP measure. “What is measured is managed” the saying goes and the authors concur, but I am not very convinced by that argument; we have measured poverty or unemployment for decades, we still didn't get rid of it. It is not because Chinese leaders have decided on a number and being competent, they have a GDP growth of 9 percent; similarly, it is not because European leaders do not have sufficiently ambitious growth targets (on the contrary they have very ambitious targets which they never reach!) that their economies stumble a percent or two over decades.

In real life, the mechanisms that drive growth are rarely related to the measurement of GDP. Politics of the normal kind hardly affect GDP growth in the medium and long-term, because it is mainly the acts of corporations, the effects of technology and energy, and the growth, age and behavior of populations that determine what kind of growth we will have. In the very short term, governments can influence growth by introducing tax cuts, subsidies or austerity measures etc. The key economic agentscompanies and consumersdon't care about GDP. Companies don't invest, expand or make profits or losses with an eye to the effects of the GDP. And consumers don't buy flat screen TVs to boost the GDP. Some of the most spectacular periods of economic growth occurred before there were any GDP measurement and public GDP targets.

By all means, do away with GDP; it is a rather meaningless measure. However, don't expect that to change too many things. And therefore don't put your bets on alternative measures either. They do play a role visualizing certain developments and they are therefore good to develop, but they are no game changers.

The weakness of the book is, in my view, that the authors don't address how to change the logic of property, profit (and other forms of capital accumulation) and competition. They write A key question, then, is whether the profit motive is compatible with a non-growing economy”. In another part they say that higher labor productivity is almost always converted into higher production because business owners are beholden to profit motives. Although they do see the problems, their prescriptions fall short of addressing them. The book discusses the enormous gap in wealth in the world today, where 50 percent of the world's population shares 1 percent of global wealth. But there are no proposals in the book that will turn this around.

I look forward to the next book by Rob Dietz and Dan O'Neill where they advance their ideas further. They are on an important track: Enough is Enough is indeed good enoughLagom!

You can read the authors introduction to the book here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Are voluntary standards efficient tools for changing the world?

When you buy a cup of coffee for €2 the farmer gets 3-4 cents for the coffee in that cup. If you buy a cup of organic and fair trade coffee you are likely to have to cough-up €2.50 - and the farmer will get 4-5 cents. This example shed some light on three circumstances.
1. How little share of the economic value in today’s food chains that is constituted of the raw materials.
2. How little share agriculture has in the GDP of the rich countries - often just a few percent
3. That the market mechanism may not be particularly efficient in transforming consumers willingness to pay for direct or indirect services or values in a product to an increase in income for producers.

Hear a presentation I made at the recent Biofach fair in Nürnberg.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Money does grow on trees

Vultures can clean up a cow carcass in minutes, leaving only bones. In India, considering the resistance for eating cattle, most cows have historically been eaten by vultures. At a certain point, however, vulture population collapsed from some 40 million to just a fraction.  Dead cattle were left to rot with disastrous effects. "There was an explosion in the population of wild dogs," says environmentalist Tony Juniper. "More dogs led to more dog bites and that caused more rabies infections among people." The disease killed thousands and cost the Indian government an estimated $30bn, he adds.The cause for the drop in number of vultures was that Indian farmers began using a new anti-inflammatory drug on their cattle. Traces proved to be lethal for vultures, which were killed in vast numbers.What was done to increase profit by the farmers caused enormous problems for society.

The story of the Indian vultures is one of the most striking stories from What has nature ever done for us?:  How Money Really Does Grow On Trees by Tony Juniper. The book has made quite an impact; three weeks after publication, it's already on its fourth print run. In the book, Juniper explains the immense value of natures gifts to us, what nowadays often is referred to as "eco-system services". He should know. From 1990 he worked at Friends of the Earth and was the organisation's executive director from 2003-2008 and was the Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International from 2000-2008. He was a candidate for the Green Party in Cambridge 2010.

Through a large number of stories Juniper describes how nature is not only the provider of all our food and oxygen but also the world’s largest water utility, helps us  in the control of pests and diseases, reproduce soils, gives us access to a wealth of genes to breed better crop varieties and develop new drugs soils, oceans store carbon, and coral reefs, mangroves and wetlands protect coastlines from storms and flooding.

Take the soils, not only has it taken nature many thousand of years to build up their fertility allowing them to produce our food. They also play an important role for water regulation and purification; one hectare of soils can store and filter the drinking water for 1000 people. Many examples are of less magnificent scales, but still important. Small crabs are caught in the sea, transported to labs, where they are tapped of blood after which they are released back into the sea. Why? To produce a substance that is used to test the sterility of drugs and vaccinations.  

The book is well written and takes on a very important topic. There is not much new in the various examples, most of them (such as the services of the mangroves in Belize, the value of pollination and the water catchment of New York) have been told in numerous books.  Still, it is an excellent introduction to the understanding of the value of nature, and that money does grow on trees, for the general public, businesses and policy makers.

My main expectation was that Juniper, with his combined experience from Friends of the Earth, business and politics, would have some new insights in the question 'how do we go ahead?'. That is left to the last chapter which I read with special attention.

With some caution he endorses paying for ecosystem services as a tool for changing the business logic. But he warns that some schemes have questionable benefits and that there might be unintended consequences emerging from trading nature. "Making an economic valuation is getting the attention of the policy-makers who don't normally listen." Juniper says in an interview.
Juniper dismisses the symbolic efforts of the "green economy", and he also caution that new technology is also not a cure for all. We need a totally new system: a bio-economy. 'our economy would in effect become a part of nature, rather than as now, where it is not only seen as a separate entity, but is actively engaged in a programme of asset-stripping of natural systems, which in turn we celebrate as growth'. That is in my liking.

After reading this bald statement, I am disappointed that his suggestions are either the same examples of "green economy/green capitalism" (such as changing indicators, selling eco-system services, valuing nature) that have been around for several decades or putting his faith into that religion and advertising (!) could be put into the hands of the good forces to change our behaviour. There is perhaps nothing patently wrong with these suggestions, but they fall short of delivering what Juniper and I both want. 

More reviews of the book: Guardian, WWF, Business Green, Goodsreads, Designs On Earth, Friends of the Earth, New Scientist

Listen to an interesting lecture about markets for ecosystem services by Joshua Farley. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Beer, sodas, snack and convenience food are worse than meat

The food chain consumes one seventh of all energy in the USA. How we process, distribute and cook our food has a much bigger impact on our energy use than if we eat plants or animals. This is because food processing, distribution, cooking and food services consume 85 percent of all energy in the food chain in the USA. 

The first graph shows the energy use per person in the US food system up to the point of consumption.
What we can see is that snacks, convenience food, beverages and bakery products take very high shares of the energy (together 40 percent of the total).
  • One third of all energy is used for snacks, convenience food and beverages
  • Their energy use is double the total for all meats
  • Fruit and vegetables consume as much energy as dairy
  • Grains are most efficient at the farm level (which is why they have been staple foods in the first place), but their processing demands a lot of energy. Corn syrup for sodas, barley malt for beer, wheat for ready made pasta and pizza and bakery products, corn for all sorts of snacks)    
Note that the category "Frozen, canned, snack etc. contains a lot of different foods with mixed ingredients. If the frozen food is a single ingredient low processed products, e.g. a frozen broccoli or a turkey it will be classified as "processed vegetables" and "poultry" respectively.

If you look at what happens at the consumption level things get even more complex.  The 56% we see is the total from the graph above. Here we add the energy use in households and food eaten "out". This includes the energy spent for frying, storage in refrigerators and freezers etc. Here we see that
More than a fourth of the energy is used in households.

17 percent is used for cafés, restaurants, catering.

The food system's design and form plays a much bigger role than if we eat plants or animals. Fresh vegetables are actually one of the least efficient foods if you calculate energy efficiency (but they are very healthy to eat).

I will follow up this post with a longer analysis shortly.

Main source: Energy Use in the U.S. Food System by Patrick Canning, Ainsley Charles, Sonya Huang, and Karen R Polenske, Economic Research Report No. (ERR-94) 39 pp, March 2010

There seems to be some correlation between the share of the price that goes to the farmer and the share of energy use in the different stages of the food chain. 

Store Cost  
Farmer Income