Why globalization is (mostly) green

Shipping millions of containers of stuff around the world might seem to be bad for the planet but in the long run globalization will help us solve our environmental problems.

With apologies to anyone who took Econ101 in college and at the risk of oversimplification, here’s why:

  1. The global economy is not a zero-sum game.
  2.  Trade benefits buyers and sellers
  3. Rising incomes and wealth are good for the environment.

Ergo, globalization is mostly green.

This may seem self-evident to some but as I follow the conversation about business, the economy and sustainability in a number of venues — from the sparring over China in last week’s presidential debate to Mark Bittman’s musings about an ideal food label to the argument from some enviros that what we need is not economic growth, but “degrowth” — I’m surprised by lack of understanding of the benefits of trade, globalization and growth. [click to continue…]

Food for thought from Tyler Cowen

This month, just for fun, I’m doing to devote most of my writing to food and sustainability. My plan is to write about organic vs. conventional yields, a controversy around Fair Trade, the giant candy company Mars, clean cooking fuels in Mozambique and the goings-on at a pair of upcoming events where I’ll be moderating: the 2012 National Policy Conference of CropLife America, about “The Politics of Food and the 2012 Farm Bill,” and the always-fabulous Cooking for Solutions extravaganza at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a quirky, provocative and enjoyable book called An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies (Dutton, $26.95), by Tyler Cowen.

A free-market economist who teaches at George Mason University, Cowen writes for a broad audience. His blog, MarginalRevolution, is extremely popular. He contributes  to the Sunday NY Times business section. His interests are wide ranging (see this Grantland column on the end of football) and he seems to read every nonfiction book that matters.  His short ebook, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, is very smart, and a bargain at $3.99: It argues that what ails the US economy is not merely the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis or the distortions caused by the collapse of the dot-com bubble but a more fundamental slowdown in innovation that dates back for 40 years.

In An Economist Gets Lunch, Cowen muses about loosely-connected topics, ranging from how American food got bad (it’s not what you think) to the mysterious differences between Mexican food in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, its neighbor across the border (US regulators comes into to play) to what happened when he spent a month shopping at an Asian supermarket called Great Wall in Merrifield, VA (he ate healthier, fresher, cheaper foods).

Tyler Cowen

If, like me, you’re interested in the social and environmental impact of the food, you’ll want to read Cowen’s defense of agribusiness, technology and global supply chains. He rejects the argument summed up by the title of the movie Food Inc. that American food is bad for us and bad for the planet because of the commercialization of food. While Cowen is no fan of donuts or McDonald’s, he notes that by the end of the 20th century “more people ate well than ever before” and “the American poor are more likely to be obese than starving.” He writes:

Cheap, quick food–including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations–is the single most important advance in human history. It is the foundation of modern civilization, and the reason why most of us are alive.

The reasons why American food isn’t very good, he says, have less to do with business than with us, i.e., our government and culture. Prohibition all but killed fine dining because restaurants make more money from liquor than from food. Anti-immigration policies “kept American food away from its best and most fruitful innovators for decades.” Because “Americans spoil and cater to their children,” he argues, we grow up eating food that is “blander, simpler and sweeter” than food elsewhere:

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What I’ve been reading

Twitter’s a great way for me to keep up with the world of business and sustainability, as well as a quick way for me to share ideas and stories.  I thought I’d share with you an edited, annotated list of things that recently got my attention, adapted from my Twitter feed. You can follow me at @marcgunther.

The end of football? Why the NFL could lose its “license to operate.”  This is a  fascinating story by the economist Tyler Cowen, whose blog, Marginal Revolution, is one of my favorites, and Kevin Grier. They describeswhat the US would look like without football–other college sports would suffer, but academia would be better off. And why would football end? Because  the violence and injuries associated with the sport could gradually mean the NFL loses its “license to operate.” What Would the End of Football Look Like, on Grantland.

Terrible: A lethal version of “the sharing economy” The sharing economy conserves resources and shifts people from ownership to usage models–but this story is all about sharing guns. In a Mailbox: A Shared Gun, Just for the Asking, on the New York Times. [click to continue…]

The Internet of parking spaces

Have you heard about the “Internet of things”? It’s a relatively new idea to me, although I note that the phrase gets about 2.2 million Google hits (at last count) and it has its own Wikipedia entry and a YouTube clip or two. As best as I can tell, it means that many things–cars, buildings, the electric grid, appliances, smart phones, cash registers–could be equipped with sensors, networked and thus able to communicate with one another and, of course, with the rest of us. To bring the concept down to earth, think of RFID codes on supermarket items that tell grocers when to restock, GPS phones equipped with Urbanspoon software that identifies nearby restaurants, or the work of startups like Historic Futures that help companies trace the origins of everything in their supply chain.

How not to park

Or “smart” parking spaces. Streetline is a San Francisco-based startup that wants to equip parking places with sensors and software so they can to talk to cars and the people who drive them. The company’s service is being pitched as a sustainability play–as a way to reduce traffic congestion, gasoline use and carbon emissions–but its success will more likely depend on whether it helps cities realize more revenue from parking meters, either through more effective enforcement or dynamic pricing of parking.

Still, for anyone who has circled a block endlessly looking for a spot, the idea has appeal.

“You can stand up in a room of 10 people or 1,000 people and ask them if they have had trouble finding a parking place and just about everybody raises their hand,” Zia Yusuf, the chief executive of Streetline, told me when we met recently in San Francisco.

“The carbon impact, the pollution impact, the congestion impact–it’s just been completely ignored,” Zia says.

Zia Yusuf

Streetline has deployed what it calls “ultra low power mesh sensor networks” in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sausalito, CA. What this means is that the company has installed sensors in the ground at parking places which “know” whether a car is parked there, as well as sensors on meters that “know” whether there’s time remaining or not. [click to continue…]

Why posterity matters

First David Brooks, then Tyler Cowen and now Francesca Rheannon got me thinking this week about posterity and legacy and why they matter so much. Francesca, who is our guest blogger today, is a contributing writer at CSR Wire (where this originally ran) and a host and co-director of SeaChange Radio, an excellent over-the-air and Internet-distributed series of conversations about sustainability. I’m a regular listener on iTunes, and part of SeaChange’s advisory board.

Americans are inconsistent when it comes to long-term thinking.  As individuals, we are able to plan for the future–we save for our kids’ college education, or our own retirement. But in business, people often focus on the next deal, the next headline or the next quarter at the expense of the future. I’ve found that when I’m facing an important decision, or even a trivial one (“Should go out for a muffin or a run?), thinking long-term points me towards an answer. “Thinking past ourselves” is the way Francesca puts it.

When my granddaughter starts kindergarten this September, she’ll be going to PS 11, a public school set in the heart of a predominantly African-American community in Brooklyn, NY.

Francesca Rheannon
Francesca Rheannon

The school has pledged itself to a sustainable future for children. The day I visited, enormous, colorful cutouts of animals and sea creatures festooned the halls. It turns out the displays were part of the school partnership with Amnesty International, which guides every grade in adopting a cause. The early grades chose the environment: preserving the rain forest, keeping the planet’s waters clean, and saving animals from extinction. The connection between human rights and the right to a healthy environment for all living beings was implicit. The kids also get the connection between a healthy environment and personal health: they grow vegetables together in the community garden next door to the school. All these activities show the core of the school’s philosophy: “the importance of children thinking past themselves,” in the words of the school’s principal. It seems to me to be the core concept of sustainability, as well. [click to continue…]