Monday, March 29, 2010

From Consumerism to Sustainability or The Story of Stuff

The Worldwatch Institute has issued their 2010 State of the World Report, Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability, a bold attempt to identify and address the range of issues surrounding large scale cultural transformation. A Table of Contents for the book, with links to selected chapters, is available online.

A podcast of Erik Assadourian, Senior Researcher at Worldwatch Institute and Director State of the World 2010, speaking with Diane Horn about report is available here.

Highlignts among the online chapters are The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures, a discussion of Engaging Religion to Shape Worldviews, a look at education's role in supporting sustainability by Rethinking School Food, and a look at how social marketing can be used to shift the media From Selling Soap to Selling Sustainability.

An interesting example of the latter is found in The Story of Stuff.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Local systems

Decentralization is a major idea in lots of environmental thought. It can be traced back at least to 1973 and Schumacher's classic work Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. But, as local food producers are discovering, it isn't sufficient to localize one element of the system, you have to decentralize the whole system. The NYTimes has an interesting article illustrating the problem: small farmers are cutting back on the production of locally raised meat because they are unable to access slaughterhouses.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will the Real #1 Driver of Climate Change Please Stand Up?

As I study energy and climate, statistics fly at me from every direction and it gets really hard to sort things out. Everything, it seems, is "the largest single producer of carbon emissions" and there is no way to sort out which really is the largest.

NASA recently conducted a study of all the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions and their net effects on climate change.

Clearly, electric power production is the largest single source of C02, but it is offset by aerosol-cloud effects and sulfates that actually cause global cooling, thus the net global warming effect of electricity production is about the same as the Industry sector.

Likewise, the road transportation sector produces less C02 than the Industry and power sectors, but road transportation does not have the aerosol offsets that would reduce it's impact on global warming. Thus, while the road transportation sector produces less C02, it actually contributes more to global warming than Industry and Power—today.

However, if you look at the title of the article, it says "Road Transportation Emerges as Key Driver of Warming." While is this is true in a qualified sense (it is "a" key driver), that statement doesn't make as much sense when you look at the first graph. Electric power production produces the most C02, and in fact, the NASA data shows that in the future, assuming BAU, electric power production will continue to be the largest driver of global warming, with road transportation second. As we build cleaner power plants that produce fewer aerosols, the warming effect of power production will increase dramatically. Road Transportation as "the" key driver only appears when you look at the second graph, which is an estimate of emissions for 2020.

What the article doesn't consider is the behavioral effects of car use. Driving increases casual consumption exponentially. The reason why we shop more, eat out at restaurants more, live, work and play at greater distances, is because of the power and convenience of the automobile to get us to every destination cheaply and efficiently. Cars exponentially increase the speed and amount that we are able to consume. This increased consumption creates a demand for more products and services, which in turn creates a demand for more electric energy production and more industrial production, which also leads to an increase in road transportation. So in that sense, road transportation is indeed a KEY driver in global warming. Ecologists call this effect a "positive feedback loop."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Book: Origins of Globalization

Karl Moore (faculty of management at McGill University in Montreal) and David Lewis (faculty of history at California State University, Long Beach) recently published, The Origins of Globalization. In it they combine archeology, history, religion and economics with the theory and practice of the modern multinational corporation in order to argue advance the claim that:
quite a few of today's business forms and business cultures existed in ancient times. Globalization, multinational enterprises, commercial partnerships, foreign joint ventures, and embryonic forms of mass production all had their precursors or prototypes in the very remote past.
My reaction to the content is quite schizophrenic. On the one hand, the book brings together a wealth of information on business practices in the ancient world (i.e., the 3000 years before Christ). Here, as summarized by a review in the Globe and Mail, is the book's discussion of the collapse of Ur:
By 2000 BC, the Mesopotamian city of Ur (referenced in the Old Testament as Ur of the Chaldees) was the largest city-state in the world (population: 65,000), a metropolis of extraordinary prosperity in the fertile land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers in modern-day Syria and Iraq.

As it happened, the most ancient of crashes followed the collapse of the world’s first mutual fund, a distinctly capitalistic financial innovation that had enabled ordinary people (among them, shopkeepers, farmers and labourers) to invest in enterprises previously limited to the rich and the powerful. In this historic meltdown, the investment that went wrong was in copper. For the first time, investors in a publicly traded pool had experienced the excessive optimism that former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan would famously describe as “irrational exuberance.”

Share prices soared. Investors spent anticipated profits before they earned them. Ur never recovered from the credit freeze that followed the calamity of history’s first public offering.

This is just one of many fascinating stories in the book. More importantly, at least from the perspective of ecological sociology, the book calls "for today's globalizers to 'make the world safe for diversity.'" In other words, it argues against an interpretation of globalization as homogenization. There are obvious parallels between this position and the biologist's claim that complex and diverse ecosystems are more resilient than simple, homogeneous ones.

On the down side, the book interprets ancient economic practice in terms of modern management theory, specifically the Dunning's eclectic paradigm. As such, it suffers from a serious case of presentism -- that is interpreting the past in terms of concepts from the present. For example, it is impossible to have 'multinational corporations' without having nations. But, as conventionally understood by historians, nations didn't exist until the 17th century. Thus, it is hard to understand how multinational corporations in anything approaching the modern sense existed in ancient times. While full of wonderful stories and significant insights, the books larger argument suffers from an inattention to historical perspective. Moore and Lewis take an objectivist position, claiming they can identify the similarity between various economic actions based on the characteristics of the action itself. This is the equivalent of saying Priestley discovered oxygen, because that is what we call the substance he isolated. But, neither Priestly nor historians of science make that claim. They know he discovered pholgiston. Ever since Weber, sociologists have recognized it is not just the action/object itself, it is the conceptual understanding and meaning given to the action/object by the actor that is important. In short, while Moore and Lewis do an excellent job of opening our eyes to the diversity of economic activity in the ancient world, the attempt to draw explicit parallels between past and present economic behaviours seriously misrepresents things.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute interviewed Lester Brown on his latest version of "Plan B: 4.0". Lester confirmed in his interview what Johann Hari said in Democracy Now: that local, grassroots environmental campaigns have successfully stopped the development of new coal-fired power plants in the US, just as Climate Camp did in the UK. Furthermore, he said that older plants are being converted to cleaner fuels or shut down because of direct action and public pressure. Interestingly, Lester said that in 2009, more money was invested globally in renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal than was invested in fossil fuel production, a first in modern history.

Alternatives Features Holling and Resilience

The April Alternatives magazine (Canadian ecology 'zine) is focusing on Resilience, and includes an interview with Buzz Holling and a "Hardcore Guide to Resilience" using Hollings' research.

Inside is also a full-page add for a conference at the Dalhousie School of Social Work on "The Social Ecology of Resilience." The conference is scheduled for June 7th-10th, 2010. It is co-sposored by the Resilience Research Centre, directed by Michael Ungar at Dalhousie University.

The conference on resilience is not about ecological resilience, but resilience on a smaller scale, with families, youth, and the other sorts of people that social workers generally deal with. Social work, and psychology to a lesser extent, has been working with the idea of social resilience for decades. Just now the social work profession has been able to link research on social resilience with larger scale resilience theory for whole societies and ecosystems. The link between the two is absolutely correct in that vulnerable, stressed, and disadvantaged populations are more prone to suffering devastating effects from ecological crises.

Ecosystem Modeling | Energy Bulletin

Ecosystem Modeling | Energy Bulletin

Energy Bulletin has posted an article by Albert Bates on Ecosystem Modeling. This segment looks at carrying capacity and responses to energy declines. The five types of ecosystem modeling featured are:

1. no discontinuity: the population and carrying capacity increase together; temporary shortages are quickly resolved by resource substitution;
2. sigmoid response: the ecosystem has a clear signal that a limit has been reached, curbs its consumption of resources, and population growth goes down;
3. oscillating overshoot: signals are unclear or confused; the population continues to grow and over-consume, overshooting multiple limits over a relatively short period; each period of overshoot leads to a crash, then a resumption of growth and overshoot;
4. hard crash (for lack of a better term): there are no clear signals of limits, the population continues to overshoot until a crash happens and there is no avenue for recovery;
5. catabolic collapse: This is John Michael Greer's scenario of a long period of decline, a stepwise descent into a lower-energy system. The authors confirm that this is a very likely scenario and has been predicted by other energy experts:
After reading John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent, we added a fifth type to the CAT scenarios — catabolic collapse. Once more, the signals are not recognized because the reality of the problem challenges the core beliefs of the dependent organization, such as a classical economics that admits of no limit in supply as long as there is demand. Greer postulates that overshoot may not follow a straight linear decline but rather may vacillate between plunges and temporary states of repose, using up “banked” resources that are retasked and recycled. The descent curve resembles a stair-step, arguably the experience of the global economy since peak production of liquid fossil fuels and their substitutes was reached in the 2006 to 2008 period.

The Next Hundred Million by Joel Kotkin

Since Julian Simon's death over a decade ago, few people have thoughtfully articulated optimistic scenarios for the middle range future. Instead, bookstores are littered with books predicting doom and gloom resulting from climate change and environmental degradation, the economic decline of the west relative to China, peak oil and many other factors. Part of this is, no doubt, empirically based. But some of it is probably cultural. For whatever reason, the apocalyptic narrative seems to have returned full force.

Thus, it is refreshing to find someone like Joel Kotkin who makes a well articulated, if ultimately unconvincing, case for a rosy American future. At the heart of Kotkin's vision is the projection that the US, in contrast to other western countries, will increase significantly in population over the next 40 years. And, like Simon before him, he predicts the combination of this brain power and America's adaptability will create by 2050 the most affluent, culturally rich, and successful nation in human history.

Unfortunately for individuals interested in realistic scenarios of the future, Kotkin's book is notable more for what it leaves out than for what it incorporates. It is, largely, a book that focuses on the US economy in isolation -- there is little consideration of the world system as a whole or of environmental matters. Indeed, in many ways the title misrepresents the real thrust of the argument. This is not a forecast of the future based on consideration of a wide number of complexly interacting factors. It is, rather, a very thoughtful analysis of demographic growth and its consequences (e.g., the geographic distribution of the expanded population and its cultural impact in terms of increased diversity, etc.). Kotkin's earlier work dealt with cities and the geographic impact of digital technology. The current work is best seen in that light, as an argument with Richard Florida over the kind of cities that are most likely to foster economic development in the future. Individuals looking for a surrogate Julian Simon, someone who articulates an optimistic vision of the future based on scenarios that incorporate multiple factors and presume a fundamental continuation of the status quo, had best look elsewhere.

Joel Kotkin Summarizes "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050" from Voices for Innovation on Vimeo.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The dark side of the Victory Garden

As profiled on Colbert last week, the Crisis Garden offers food for when social infrastructure collapses.


Environment Event at UNB

Forum on Environmental Politics
Title: Forum on Environmental Politics
Description: The department of political science invites you to attend a Forum on Environmental Politics on Thursday, March 18, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., in Tilley Room 223.

We will have research talks by Dr. Rusty Bitterman, Louise Comeau, Dr. Tom Beckley, and Janice Harvey, followed by a public reception at 5 p.m. in Tilley 28.

At 5:30 p.m., in Tilley Hall, Room 5, Dr. Andrew Biro, Canada Research Chair in Ecological Politics and Environmental Political Theory at Acadia, will give a public lecture entitled 'Water Wars' from Global to Local: Violence and the Production of Scarcity.

All are invited to attend. For further information, please go to

Campus: Fredericton
Times & Locations: Thursday, March 18, 2010, 15:00 - 17:00 at Tilleu Hall, 223

Major Conservation Groups Accept Big Money from Big Polluters

Democracy Now featured Johann Hari who wrote an article in The Nation about the practice of major conservation groups accepting large donations from the largest polluters in the world. In turn, these conservation groups, including Conservation International, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation, back the polluters' position on climate change and actually enhance their ability to increase emissions. The conservation groups set up PR outfits that portray their polluting donors as "green". But there are large environmental justice groups that don't accept corporate donations, including Greenpeace.

Interestingly, Hari argues that the grassroots environmental movement in Britain has refused to play this political game and has used direct action to stop the building or expansion of new coal-fired power plants and airports. Climate Camp UK is one such group that has successfully used direct action to stop new coal-fired power plants.

The Economist has an interesting article, Data Data Everywhere, describing the 'industrial revolution in data'. The key point (as shown in the chart) is that the ability to collect data is exceeding the capacity to store it.

This has two interesting consequences. First, the ability to store data has exceeded human capacity to capture 'useful' information since the origins of writing. Thus, for the first time in ages we are entering a period where that isn't the case. Second, the capacity to extract knowledge from 'big data' becomes the limiting factor. In some sectors this isn't entirely novel. Thus, for example, what Derek de Solla Price labeled 'big science' -- large scale collaborative research with big budgets, big staffs, big machines and big laboratories like the human genome project or CERN -- has been a major factor in scientific knowledge generation since WWII. What we now have is the spread of this focused ability into the wider society with the resulting ability of mega-corporations (think Wal-Mart and their ability to collect and manage information about store sales, product delivery, etc) as the only ones with the resources necessary to store and extract the relevant information. A similar example is found in Goldman Sachs' use of 'flash trading'.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Complexity Everywhere

Complexity theory is spreading through every possible discipline in social science, even, believe it or not, social work.

As faculty for the Social Work program at St. Thomas Univ., I was asked to attend a workshop on housing for the homeless, presented by the Mainstay Program of Toronto. Among other things, the program booklet, called "Beyond the Key to the Front Door," featured a theory by author Brenda Zimmerman called "Simple Rules, Complex People." It broke down social service problems to three categories: simple, complicated, and complex. To quote:

Simple tasks are achieved by following a recipe for success: "The recipe has been tested to ensure that even someone with no particular expertise can succeed. The results are known, predictable and can be produced every time the recipe is followed exactly."

Complicated tasks, such as sending a rocket to the moon, require many experts to work together. "The formulae may be very elaborate, and must be broken down into separate parts. Nonetheless, if the formula is followed, the results are highly predictable."

Complex tasks, like raising a child, do not depend on a recipe or formula. "Expertise can help, but is not enough: relationships are the real key to success. It is impossible to break down the work into separate parts. And the results are uncertain and unknowable."

Getting chronically homeless people to accept living in a supported apartment program is indeed, a complicated task with very complex people. Coping with homeless people's aversion to social living, addiction and mental illness requires constant inventiveness, adaptability and relational skills. The outcome is never certain. A tenant may stay in the housing or choose to return to the street. They may be forced out of housing because of maladaptive behaviour. The Mainstay Program chooses a "complex approach" to housing the homeless by committing to a long-term relationship with the tenant and adapting the housing situation to meet their unique needs.

But there is one more level beyond "complex." In my study of complexity theory, I discovered the Wicked. I recently encountered the concept of “the wicked” in a short article by Deborah Curran in Alternatives, a Canadian environmental magazine. It was entitled “Wicked: If you feel like community sustainability is a moving target, that’s because it is.” (Oct. 09). She lifted the idea from John C. Camillus of the University of Pittsburgh, who wrote in the May 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review: “Strategy is a Wicked Problem.” Curran quotes Camillus:

“Wickedness isn’t a degree of difficulty. Wicked issues are different because traditional processes can’t resolve them. . . A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer. . . . Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty—these are classic examples of wicked problems.” (Curran, Alternatives, p. 9).

As a sociologist, I try to use and devise theories that work on all four levels: simple, complicated, complex, and wicked.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Climate Wars, Part Deux

The past few years have seen the publication of a variety of popular titles discussing the global geopolitical implications of climate change. The first, and still the best, of these was Gwen Dyer's Climate Wars. In it Dyer, a noted military historian, takes a medium term view (e.g. to 2050 or so) in order to examine the connection among dwindling resources, population shifts, natural disasters, epidemics, drought, rising sea levels, plummeting agricultural yields, crashing economies, political extremism and climate change in order to build plausible scenarios about how any of them could tip the world towards conflict. CBC Ideas produced a three part series from the book. The podcast is available here.

More recently, Cleo Paskal has written Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map

Guy Stanley describes the book as follows:
The Cold War was never this hot! We live in interesting times. The biggest western economic institutions are crumbling, what were once marginalized voices are now dominating international negotiations, and touchstone climate events, such as the monsoon, are failing. Everywhere you look economic, geopolitical and environmental assumptions are being shaken to the core. The world is changing. Fast. Global Warring examines these trends by combining insightful economic and political analysis with the most likely environmental change scenarios. It identifies problem areas that could start conflicts (access to water and resources in Asia), economic trends that are shifting the balance of power (China’s policy of nationalistic capitalism), and geopolitical realignments (the burgeoning strategic partnership between the United States and India). Award-winning writer and geopolitical expert Cleo Paskal makes sense of this overwhelming topic by dividing it into five sections: how seemingly impervious western nations, such as the United States, are shockingly vulnerable to hurricanes, storm surges and rising sea levels, and what that could mean for their internal stability and economic development; how the thawing Arctic is opening up a whole new arena for power politics as some of the world’s biggest countries wrangle for control over vast resources, strategic shipping routes such as the Northwest Passage and geopolitical leverage; how changing precipitation patterns, extreme weather and water shortages are creating severe disruptions in India and China, and how that could affect their relations with each other, and the world; how rising sea levels may shift borders and alter the very notion of statehood, potentially challenging international law to the breaking point; and, finally, what could happen in coming decades, and how to avoid the worst of it. Paskal combines ten years of research; the latest findings from the Hadley Centre and the United Nations; and interviews with top political, security and economic strategists with her own extensive travel as a foreign correspondent. The result is a penetrating, accessible, compelling, and chilling reminder that Global Warring is not only coming, it’s here. "In a clear, comprehensive and alarming analysis, Cleo Paskal underlines the geopolitically disruptive potential of climate change. Arguably this is the biggest challenge to human society since the Ice Age or the Black Death and it is not clear we are any readier to respond adequately to ours than were our unfortunate ancestors to theirs.

Another review is available here.

Monday, March 1, 2010

An Up-Side to Corporate Concentration?

Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of mega-corporations. My fast food consumption is close to nil. I buy something at WalMart once or twice a year. The one significant exception is Amazon. I collect relatively obscure art photography books. There is no place in town to satisfy that desire. While I'll get really obscure ones directly from the small presses, the lure of price and easy availability (30% off! Free shipping on orders over $39!)lures me into Amazon's clutches. But, interestingly, that same level of buying power that corporations have traditionally used to eek out every cent of profit for themselves (yes, I'm aware of how Amazon has forced local bookstores out of business and driven down the price that publisher's receive) can also be used for other purposes.

Thus, we have WalMart's plan to make its supply chain greener. In essence, WalMart is using its buying power to force its suppliers into examining the carbon lifecycle of their products. While it is the suppliers, not WalMart, that will bear the costs of modifying the product, general estimates place about 33% of energy efficiency gains as cost effective. Thus, in many ways, WalMart is only using a stick to get companies to make changes that are already sensible -- such as reducing packaging -- but require some sort of incentive to get the manufacturer to make the effort to change.

The press release claims that the plan will cut 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by the end of 2015 -- the equivalent of taking 3.8 million cars of the road for a year. You can read more about it here.

We'll see. But on the face of it, this initiative makes sense for both WalMart and the suppliers. The carbon reductions will come from situations where efficiencies are cost effective and, hence, allow WalMart to further reduce prices at the same time that the suppliers are reducing both their carbon footprint and their production costs. The down side? In ten or twenty years, when all the economic efficiencies have been weaned out of the system, we end up with even more corporate concentration and a less resilient system at the time when hard, uneconomic reductions in carbon are necessary. At that point, all that corporate concentration, actively lined up against making the necessary changes, will come back to bite us in the butt.