Paradigm shift, maybe

In spite of what David Rothkopf has to say on the subject, I am really hopeful that the crisis that has been shaking the world economy since last fall will not have been in vain. Given all that has happened, and the intense amount of media scrutiny and public debate on the outcomes of the “Crash of 2008” (however you want to call it – does it even have a proper capitalized name yet?), you would think that this would have created some space for a healthy discussion regarding the future of our civilization… We live in a world of gross overconsumption, excess and waste. While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m firmly part of this system, I see the need to adopt a system that doesn’t promise to drive us straight into the wall as an urgent one (Lula said it best.)

Yesterday, I came across a TED talk by Ray Anderson, the CEO of a carpet company. Now you might think – as I did – that hearing Mr. Anderson’s take on the “business logic of sustainability” would probably not be the most enlightening and thought provoking experience (again: carpet company.) Well, that is a misguided impression, dear reader, and I invite you to check out his 15 min talk in the video below. Personally, I’m a huge fan of the Environmental Impact Equation (min 4:40), and particularly of his re-writing of it (min 11:18). 
Obviously, developing a “new civilization” is no easy feat, and you can’t draw a fancy road map for completing this task. Nonetheless, the notion that Anderson introduces in his speech, that we must decrease the importance of “Affluence”, and increase the importance of “Happiness” in our calculation of the impact of production really appeals to me (watch the video, really). Sure, it’s a pipe dream – and for working with (and not for) the private sector on a daily basis, I know that the notion of the triple bottom line is far from being a central tenet of modern business.
However, stories like these instill a little bit of hope:

The video [The Story of Stuff] is a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste, and it has its detractors. But it has been embraced by teachers eager to supplement textbooks that lag behind scientific findings on climate change and pollution. And many children who watch it take it to heart: riding in the car one day with his parents in Tacoma, Wash., Rafael de la Torre Batker, 9, was worried about whether it would be bad for the planet if he got a new set of Legos.

Of course, no one wants their kids (or other people’s kids, even worse) becoming staunch and unwavering advocates of the environment at home – I can already picture children across America going through their mothers’ cosmetics and hiding/throwing away (I mean, recycle) all of the products that don’t meet their high standards. Regardless – and seriously – I do believe that tackling the question of how to adapt our modes of production/consumption to current realities (more people, more pollution, less resources) will require some efforts on the educational front. Leaders of tomorrow (it’s apparently too late for today’s leaders) will need to view the world through the filter of sustainability – and that can only happen if we educate and shape our young generation to respond appropriately to the challenges of their time. 

The Story of Stuff is an amazing video, which I highly recommend you watch – similarly to the Anderson TED talk, it shows how modern means of production are outdated. I’m not surprised that it’s being used in classrooms across the US to teach students about the environment and climate change. Living in Vancouver, I sometimes feel like I live “in the future”: few people still use plastic water bottles, taxis are almost all hybrid, buses are electric, electricity comes mostly from hydropower… etc… There are so many signs that we are turning a corner in terms of how we approach consumption/waste – but not nearly enough, in my view. And I suppose it will take time. And that, to a large extent, it’s the millions of small, everyday paradigm shifts that really make a difference (recall Rafael de la Torre Batker who was worried about the effect of a new set of Legos on the planet). 

The Economist published a story about money growing on trees. Wait. What? 

When forests vanish, people suffer. That is why many believe that there is an urgent need to bring forests onto the global financial balance sheet. Last year Pavan Sukhdev, an economist at Deutsche Bank, reported that the world was losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year as a result of deforestation alone. If money could be made by selling these ecosystem services, then the financial equation for forests would change.

So a London-based firm, Canopy Capital, is taking up the challenge with Iwokrama International Center (Iwokrama is 370,000 hectare forest in Guyana). They are creating an entirely new class of asset management, by analyzing all of the “services” the forest offers and putting a price tag on it: carbon sequetration, soil regulation, oxygen production… Possibilities are endless, seemingly. I think the conclusion of The Economist piece captures it: “For a few bright sparks out there, financial innovation and engineering combined with science will let them generate wealth in a whole new way.”

Brilliant! I’m already imagining the answers we’ll hear when we ask a child, ten years from now, what he or she wants to be when they grow up: “I want to be a financial scientist!” 

Intersecting tragedies

At last, an update on this blog. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I often feel like everything’s already been said and that I’m preaching to the choir. There are dozens of stories that inspire me to write, but I have a difficult finding something to say that I don’t find redundant. For instance, this story on “personal terrorism” (warming: photo not for the faint hearted)really shook me to the core when I first read it a few weeks back, and I have been pondering a post about it, but what can I say other than the fact that I find it deeply offensive, sad and backward… Sort of like this story about a 13 year old girl who was stoned to death because SHE was raped. I am – as we all are, at least those reading this blog – appalled that this sort of medieval, senseless and cruel violence against women still exists in this supposedly “modern” world. 

In any case, I have been watching all sorts of retrospectives and “year in review” programs on the various news channels on my parents’ cable (god bless satellite television), and when it’s all strung together, like a chain of very dark pearls, one really gets a sense of a flailing modern civilization. Sure, we’ve elected an amazing individual to the highest office in the land in the United States, but we have also witnessed a number of horrendous natural tragedies (the typhoon in Burma and the earthquakes in China claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each), ever continuing violence and hatred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Colombia… everywhere else…, a financial crisis of incomprehensible proportions (1000s of billions of dollars later, we will have fixed nothing), and, of course, we continue to witness the destruction of this planet. 
I was asked a few months ago to investigate the nexus of climate change, sustainable development and diplomacy – a broad topic, indeed. The focus, because of my background, was to be on “climate refugees”, which sounds like something from some sort of sci-fi movie, but is actually becoming a reality to contend with. Because of my new job and constant stress of running out of money for The Niapele Project, my mind has been consumed and I haven’t had a chance to delve into this topic. But watching one of those fascinating (yet frigthening) retrospectives on France 24 last night (France 24 is France’s response to CNN and BBC…. ), I saw a segment on the effects of climate change on a small group of islands called Carteret Islands.
This small group of islands, in my mind, symbolize the coming intersection of tragedies. We are used to thinking about climate change in a separate realm from man-made wars. Natural disasters have been, for some time, hermetically considered from the rest of the problems that affect humanity. I haven’t been able to find this again, but back in 2004, when the tsunami hit large swaths of Asia, and billions of dollars of aid poured in quasi instantly, a cartoon was published showing a couple African children in rags, watching a plane fly overhead with the words “Humanitarian Aid” written on it, and the following words appearing in a bubble above one of the kids: “Too bad we didn’t get hit”. We tend to separate suffering caused by other men and suffering caused by nature, as if the victims were true victims in one case, but not the other.
The people living in the Carteret Islands are among the world’s first “climate refugees“, and their home is slated to disappear in the oceans – forever – in the next 10 years or so (although predictions vary, clearly, like a lot of the other island states in the Pacific, the Carteret Islands’ fate is essentially sealed). Island nations have been among the first to call for concerted global action to deal with the issue of climate change – for them, it’s a matter of simple survival. Cynics might argue that these islands should not be inhabited in the first place, similarly to places like New Orleans or Holland or Venice. But the future of communities who live in these places has been compromised by humanity’s destructive behavior. 
Bangladesh – one of the world’s poorest and most populated countries – is also facing intractable challenges due to climate change.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.”

It is a frigthening prospect – rising sea levels and disappearing homelands, leading to mass migrations. While we haven’t yet seen this happen on a massive scale, we are quick to dismiss the impact of environmental destruction and climate related causes of war and violence. In the Sudan, desertification is one of the underlying causes which pitted nomad cattle herders against sedentary agriproducers. As the world’s basic natural resources dwindle, and more and more previously habitable land is rendered unfit for human exploitation, we will undoubtedly witness some unprecendent population movements – how and where is hard to say, although clearly island nations, low lying coastal areas and landlocked deserted areas will be on the frontlines. 

I’m fascinated by this intersection of man made and natural tragedies, and curious to see how the world will respond. I’ve already mentioned ad nauseam how the international legal framework that governs the treatment of refugees and displaced people is outdated and unable to address modern challenges. Will the UNHCR blaze trails and design specific legal protections for communities and individuals displaced by environmental catastrophes? If so, when? Probably once it’s too late – it always takes a disaster of monumental proportions for the world to react (world war I was not enough for Europeans to stop killing each other – only at the end of world war II did we devise a system to prevent this from ever happening again [at least in our lifetimes]). 

For 2009, I wish that the leaders of our vulnerable little planet WAKE UP and realize that we are about to self-annihilate. It may even be too late – who knows, really – to reverse the effects of decades of selfish exploitation of the Earth. But the impending intersection of tragedies – the natural ones and the man-made ones – will surely be a wake up call, at some point down the line. 

To close of this post, and this year, I leave you with one of my favorite proverbs (sometimes attributed to ancient African wisdom, other times to Hindu philosophy, but nonetheless a deeply potent thought)

“We did not inherit this world from our forefathers – we are borrowing it from our grandchildren”

Reconciling economic and social goals in development

If you boil it down to its most basic propositions, sustainability can be achieved by reconciling economic and broad social goals. However, striking a good balance between the – often – conflicting goals is a lot easier said than done. The World Bank is acting a little schizophrenic in South Asia:

The World Bank Group’s board appears to be operating under a severe case of cognitive dissonance, supporting efforts to save tigers – threatened in India and Bangladesh by habitat loss due to climate change – while helping build coal-fired power plants that will only speed up this process.

I think the term “cognitive dissonance” is very appropriate. The Center for Global Development calls the IFC’s plan to help finance the power plant is an “ultra mega mistake“. The latter article indirectly contributes to the debate concerning the rights of developing nations to consume as much energy in their development as richer nations did. This situation has lead to complicated negotiations over climate change strategy at a transnational level (a “social” goal), because of the economic implications – the relative impact of reducing carbon emissions matters hugely when it comes to economic development.

We have to acknowledge at least the a priori validity of the claim that developing nations should not have to be “unfairly” constrained in their economic development. One of the commenters on the CGD blog says this: “I worry about folks perched in fancy offices in DC, enjoying all the comforts that life can offer, trying to deprive other countries the opportunity to grow and prosper.” The issue, however, is not about “depriving” countries of “opportunities”, but to push for investment in clean energy everywhere, not just in developed countries. It seems to me that investing in monumental coal-fired power plants is likely to be a good short term solution: indeed, it will increase the energy production capacity in the region, which is a desirable goal.

However, the long term consequences are being ignored… Eventually, this power plant will really be obsolete, as new, cleaner, more efficient technologies are developed. The whole project costs $4 billion – I can’t help but wonder why these billions can’t be invested in research and development, instead of “old fashioned” power plants? I suppose that for now the answer is that the economic and financial returns on investing in R&D are not as attractive as what can be expected from the power plant investment.

So it goes – we continue to pursue short term solutions, even though we have acknowledged the need to reconcile social and economic goals, long term and short ones (in my mind, there is a correlation between short/long term and economic/social goals).

Climate Change in Africa

I just skimmed through this 400 page study on the changing environmental landscape in Africa – it’s a truly remarkable report, that discusses everything from water resources, to the presence of phytoplankton along the coasts, to deforestation, arable land and urbanization, and provides a country-by-country analysis of the state of the environment on the continent.

400 pages is pretty long, but the press release is a good place to start and acts as an executive summary.

Interestingly, it had a section on the environmental impact and implications of refugee crises

Political conflicts tragically destroy lives and livelihoods. They also have adverse impacts on surrounding environments and signifi cant transboundary implications. Wars can destroy croplands, forests, waterways and their sources, and other natural resources, while refugees searching for safe havens can burden ecosystems and complicate environmental decision-making (Vanasselt 2003). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there were 2.4 million refugees in Africa at the end of 2006 (UNHCR 2006a). Environmental degradation can exacerbate conflict, which causes further environmental degradation, creating a vicious cycle of environmental decline, tense competition for diminishing resources, increased hostility, inter-communal fighting, and ultimately social and political breakdown. Ecological warning signs related to confl ict and its impacts include limited habitable space, decrease in production of goods, and a heavy human “footprint” (Wolf 2007).

They also have a map that accompanies this paragraph, showing the location of refugee camps around the continent. You’ll notice that almost every country on the continent is home to a refugee population – and, as events in South Africa and Ghana have demonstrated recently – these uprooted communities tend to be catalysts of instability. Refugee and IDP camps in the Eastern DRC are known to have harbored Hutu rebels since the genocide in Rwanda, prompting international aid agencies to pull out or minimize their assistance – which means, among other things, that these communities need to live as scavengers in their environments.

As the paragraph above rightly notes, we are going to start seeing a lot more displacement due to natural causes, to environmental destruction – recently, events in Myanmar and China demonstrated this. The conflict in Sudan is in part due to a fight over the availability and sharing of natural resources, which are less abundant than they used to be. As a result, even if conflicts on the African continent tend to be diminishing, as this report highlights, we may see a shift in the causes that create refugee situations, particularly as the natural environment becomes further depleted.

In Guinea, the environmental consequences of population movements are of frightening proportions:

Less than one-third of Guinea is now forested,reflecting many decades of uncontrolled deforestation. The primary drivers include growing demand for agricultural land and dependence on wood and charcoal for 90 per cent of all energy needs. The humid tropical forests of southeast Guinea have been reduced to less than five per cent of their original extent (CBD 2002). This is in part due to an influx of at least 600 000 refugees from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire during the past 15 years, which has placed increased demand on forest resources. Refugees have expanded the local populations by as much as 40 per cent in some areas, resulting in local population densities close to 400 people per square kilometre (CBD 2002).

Overall, the report is slightly frightening. I encourage you to check out the amazing “before and after” satellite photos, which couldn’t be more clear in showing the high level and incredible pace of environmental destruction. The drying up of Lake Chad, a vital source of fresh water for the Sahel region, is testament to this.

Lake Chad, 1972
1987…and 2007

I really recommend checking out their satellite image gallery, which provides a vivid and thorough overview of environmental modifications on the continent in the last forty years or so. The images showing how the Catoca Mine has been exploited in Angola between 1990 and 2006 is another example (page 104 of the study)

It is encouraging, however, that this report was published, and that light is being shed on this issue. When it comes to socio-economic development, it is now absolutely clear that environmental constraints will have to be mainstreamed into development strategies if those are to be sustainable.