The future

9780300176483The bet between the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon, which was described as  “the scholarly wager of the decade” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was settled without drama–or graciousness. As Paul Sabin writes in The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future:

One day in October 1990, Julian Simon picked up his mail at his house in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, California, Simon found a sheet of metal prices along with a check from Paul Ehrlich for $576.07. There was no note.

It was a victory not just for Simon but for optimists everywhere, and so a fitting way to start the year of 2014. The two men–who did not like one another–had in 1980, at Simon’s urging, placed a $1,000 bet on the price of five metals ten years hence. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb warning of a coming global catastrophe had made him a celebrity, as well as one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, believed that food, energy and commodities would all grow scarce, and thus more expensive over the decade. Simon, a free-market economist, had enormous faith in the power of markets, prices and innovation to solve problems. (Before the bet, Simon was best known as the inventor of the auction system used by airlines to pay passengers not to take overbooked flights.) Between 1980 and 1990, the prices of the five minerals–chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten–had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.

Simon was lucky as well as smart. A global recession in the early 1980s depressed the prices of metals, and they never recovered. As Sabin reports in his first-rate and very readable book, economists who ran simulations of the bet during every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008 found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. Yet the history of the past 45 years, since Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, weighs heavily in favor of Simon’s worldview. Market signals, human ingenuity and technological progress have solved problems that Ehrlich said would doom us all. [click to continue...]

The end of consumer culture as we know it?

ErikI wanted to eat insects with Erik Assadourian. Erik is a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute who directs its Transforming Cultures project, and he believes that we need to think differently about everything we consume, including our food. We’d first hoped to cook up some cicadas, but the much-anticipated bugs never made it to my neighborhood in Bethesda, Md. The Dutch Embassy served crickets and mealworms at a dinner last month to talk about the future of food, but I had a prior engagement. (Really.) Then we’d hoped to sample an appetizer called Cazuela de Chapulines, i.e., grasshoppers, at Casa Oaxaca, a Mexican restaurant, but they were closed for lunch. Bummer.

So we settled on Thai food, no bugs and a conversation about why western consumer culture as we know it has to come to end, at least in Erik’s view. He tells me that consumer culture could end more-or-less happily because we choose to make the transformative changes needed to adapt to a world of finite resources. Or it could end badly.

In the 2013 edition of  the Worldwatch Institute’s annual state of the world review, titled Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Erik writes:

…given that consumerism and the consumption patterns that it fuels are not compatible with the flourishing of a living planetary system, either we find ways to wrestle our cultural patterns out of the grip of those with a vested interest in maintaining consumerism or Earth’s ecosystems decline and bring down the consumer culture for the vast majority of humanity in a much crueler way.

Erik, who is 36, is not your typical environmentalist. He studied anthropology and religion at Dartmouth, and he’s as interested in economic “de-growth,” pet care and burial rituals as he is in Washington politics or electric vehicles. He’d like to see a broader and deeper environmental movement, one that helps people find their purpose in life. [click to continue...]

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...]

Wanted: A cultural revolution

pogoplaque“It’s no longer enough to change our light bulbs. We need to change our culture.”

So says Erik Assadourian, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and project director of a provocative and timely new book called 2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability. Its argument is simple: The most important driver of the world’s ecological crises, including climate change, is not venal oil or coal companies or indifferent politicians but western consumer culture–that is, us.

Global consumption has grown dramatically since World War II, reaching $30.5 trillion in 2006, up sixfold since 1960. This is, in part, a very good thing–billions of people have emerged from poverty–but today’s prevailing consumption patterns are, quite simply, unsustainable. The rich (meaning you and me) are the worst offenders but ecologists say that even at income levels that we think of as substandard–say, $5,000 or $6,000 per person per year–people are consuming at rates that will deplete the earth’s resources, cause catastrophic climate change, wipe our species and generally trash the only planet we have.  About a third of the world’s people live above this standard, and the others, presumably, aspire to do the same.

This is not a message that either business or mainstream environmental groups want you to hear, which is why you don’t hear it often. Most businesses, though not all of then, are in the business of persuading people to consume more. They shaped the consumer culture. And enviros have found that telling their members and donors to buy less stuff is a downer, and not an effective fund-raising message, especially among the well-to-do.

But, as Assadourian said during a conference call with reporters, consumer culture is not only causing environmental havoc, it’s often failing to deliver the well-being that it promises.

Most people understand–and psychological studies of happiness confirm–that after we have achieved basic economic security (itself a cultural norm), what really makes us happy are close relationships, meaningful work, connections to community and good health.

You can’t buy those things at the mall.

“Two centuries of intentional cultivation of consumerism  has led to us seeing it as perfectly natural to define ourselves primarily by what and how much we  consume,” he said. Consumerism is so embedded in our culture today that, most of the time, it’s as invisible as the air we breathe. [click to continue...]

Biofuels: burning up (your) dollars

Farm state politicians, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have sold biofuels to rest of us as a way to revive rural America, attack the problem of global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

In response, investors and taxpayers have poured many millions of dollars into corn ethanol. The returns have been skimpy.

That, at least, is the conclusion of a new report from the Worldwatch Institute called Red, White, and Green: Transforming U.S. Biofuels. The unhappy news is that we don’t seem to have learned much from our dismal experience with corn ethanol, and unless things change in Washington, we’re going to burn a lot more of it.

“From an environmental perspective, corn ethanol has not delivered in terms of climate benefits,” says Alice McKeown, an author of the report.

Worse yet, we could repeat the problems all over again with so-called next-generation biofuels. That’s sorghum, below.

sorghum

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