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Archive for the ‘economics’ Category

In the last few years we’ve seen little opposition to the idea that economic growth, however defined, is what national economies should be aiming for above all else.  That’s long concerned us EarthQuakers — we both challenge the ways in which economic costs are usually calculated and wonder how the earth can sustainably support its every inhabitant at American levels of resource consumption.

While many of the more apocalyptic predictions of the Club of Rome’s 1972 original ‘Limits to Growth’ report have not come to pass, the actual arrival of then-feared global warming makes it worth revisiting the arguments made by people who warned of its coming.

It’s time, perhaps, to ask again if there are some limits to growth.  And it certainly seems time to question how we define growth.

The PRI radio show The World ran a usefully succinct item about this very issue today, which you can find at http://www.theworld.org/audio/1015081.mp3

The best stuff starts a few minutes in.

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Here’s just a tiny example of what’s likely to be a growing phenomenon — increased pressure to extract oil from much-loved, environmentally sensitive areas all over the world.

It’s not just vast wildernesses like ANWR that will be threatened as oil prices soar.

As this plan to drill in the UK shows, we can expect that pressure to occur on the micro-scale also.

What’s at threat in Southern England is just 2.5 acres of woodland. But it’s in an area likely to soon be designated as a national park. And in a country where just about every square mile of land has been managed for millennia, any woodland has the status of national treasure.

How many such places will we be prepared to destroy in the name of extracting the last few usable barrels of oil left to us? How, too, can we create a proper accounting structure for that extraction, so that we factor the cost of the amenity destroyed (not to mention its history, ecology, intrinsic beauty etc.)  against the income derived from the small amount of petroleum that it will yield?

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It stands to reason that larger people eat more than smaller ones, which means that it takes more agricultural production — a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions — to feed them, too.

Basic physics also tells us that it takes more energy to move larger people around in planes, trains or automobiles. And unless that transport is driven by sustainably-sourced power, it makes sense that the bigger people are, the bigger (on average) are their contributions to transportation-derived climate change.

That thesis is codified in this week’s edition of the medical journal, the Lancet, by a team from the London School Hygiene & Tropical Medicine which finds that global obesity is a contributing factor to global warming.

“The researchers pegged 40 percent of the global population as obese,” reports Reuters. That’s a lot of extra food and fossil fuel being consumed that could be saved if people just had healthier body mass indices.

This statement of the somewhat obvious might have the unfortunate effect of contributing to prejudices against the obese, for whom achieving a healthy weight is often far more than a mere matter of will power.

But it might drive something positive, too, in the shape of further pressure upon us all to ask hard questions about why so many people make the kind of nutritional and lifestyle choices that result in their becoming obese. If this research helps further discredit the US subsidization of ‘junk’ calories that reside in products like high-fructose corn syrup, for example, we might be able to both help slow the warming of our planet and give its human citizens a healthier, and longer, life upon it.

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That’s what the Sierra Club is telling us.  You need sun, still, since the fuel is electricity, derived from a photovoltaic system.   And then there’s the regular maintenance on the car.  But given that plenty of people spend over $45,000 on their cars alone, and if you really do keep your new car for a few decades, that’s not a totally outrageous sum.

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A few weeks ago we noted that high prices for industrially-produced food might be a good thing if you wanted people to buy more organics. Even the New York Times came to the same conclusion.

But not so fast, says Tom Philpott over at Grist.org.

Philpott worries that, as supermarket prices for conventional goods rise, people on low incomes will turn to fast food outlets before they turn to organics.

The reality, he says, is that fast food operators “can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap.”

So what should we do? Says Philpott:

The answer, it seems to me, is not just to hope that expensive industrial food drives people toward equally expensive sustainable food. It’s to make sustainable food more broadly accessible and affordable.

As an example of the kind of action he’d like to see, Philpott points to recent legislation in Washington state that encourages schools and food-banks to use locally produced food, even if cheaper food can be imported from elsewhere.

One response to Philpott’s article comes from an agronomist, ‘Pollencruncher.’ He argues that with organics you are buying a better product, so price parity should be less of an issue — and yet thanks to public perception price parity has always been seen as necessary for organic food to be widely adopted.

But now, “We in the Organic community have met the desired goal of Parity prices for the first time in decades,” Pollencruncher observes. Couple that with the better nutrition you get from organics and you have a rationale for not being so pessimistic about what people on lower incomes will do.

Perhaps what people also need, in concert with the kind of policy action Philpott advocates, is better education in health and diet, so they can be better-informed when they weigh the financial costs of any food choice against the likely benefits and risks to their health of eating that food.

That would require, of course, disseminating messages that run counter to the best interests of very large and very influential agribusinesses. But when there’s no voice to counter advertising relentlessly selling cheap but nutritionally-empty food, too many of our collective decisions are likely to run counter to our collective best interests.

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You’d think that as we reap the environmental, health and political consequences of industrial farming techniques that consume vast quantities of fossil fuels, degrade soils and leave us with poor diets, organic produce would become ever more popular.

But two recent New York Times stories reveal a counter-intuitive, but important, reality: that as the problems associated with industrial farming get worse, organic food can easily become an even harder sell than before.

We weren’t alone in surmising that a rise in the price of conventionally farmed foods (mostly caused by a rise in the price of oil and the ethanol boondoggle) might benefit organic farmers, since that price rise ought to make organics more competitive as an alternative.

But the price pressure on conventional foods has driven up the price of organics, too, the New York Times tells us.

Partly it’s a matter of supply out-running demand, in which case we might expect market forces to come into play and bring new organic suppliers into the market. That happened in the last decade, after all, with organic farming enjoying a worldwide boom while conventional farmers received rock-bottom prices for their crops.

But now that conventional crops are commanding record prices, farmers have lost a major incentive to go organic.

The impact on consumers is powerful, too. High prices for conventionally farmed foods may drive people to organics, but they might equally lower our collective resistance to genetically modified foods — foods that are almost always classed as non-organic — the Times reports today.

Pioneer organic consumers never bought organic because it was cheap. They saw themselves as foregoing their present financial comfort for the sake of our long term global benefit. Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll be needing to call on that altruism — and call on it from a great many more people — for a good while to come.

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We almost decided not to mention this story, since it really amounts to nothing. But in case you missed it, yesterday US President George Bush called for a halt in the growth of US greenhouse gases by 2025. And he said US power plant emissions should peak in the next 10 to 15 years.

And he pretty much left it at that. To quote the SF Chronicle’s Zachary Coile:

But the president proposed no new regulations or legislation to ensure that his new targets are met, and his proposal falls far short of the cuts in greenhouse gases that scientists say are needed to avoid the worst effects of rising temperatures and sea levels.

Call it cynical; call it trying to add to a little burnish to the President’s many reputational tarnishes, or call it, as many Democrats have done, an attempt to undermine an upcoming Senate bill with real regulatory teeth (which calls for emissions to be reduced by 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 66 percent by 2050) — but it’s certainly not going to be any kind of a force for change. Which is almost certainly the President’s intention.

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