IBI Watch 12/29/13

29 12 2013

We Need this Index //

We have many measurements and indexes that purport to tell us about various aspects of the economy – the consumer price index, the gross domestic product, the consumer confidence index, and so many others. We even have this seasonal nonsense, based on the familiar old Christmas song.

Seeing several stories bunched this week, I realized we are missing an index – one that could really educate us on the folly of how we run the economic ship. First there was this one, which really should be a startup of a support group, Sardines Anonymous. Then there is a great consumer credit data security scandal, courtesy of the retailer Target. And then we have this one – that steak looks amazingly appetizing, considering its building blocks. Yum.

The thread connecting these three stories may be clear, but here are a few more items. First, Marketplace did an investigative story on the making of a humble t shirt. Interesting, and gets into that inconvenient issue of dangerous work conditions for factory workers – but not like this. (Did you catch the passing reference to the empire built on the myth of “low, low prices?”) And looking to an even bigger picture, there is this grand initiative to put useless land to work supplying the engines of industry. And a related bonanza – the United States’ triumphant return to the elite club of oil exporters, thanks to the “miracle” of fracking.

The link should be clear by now – all these stories represent ways we pursue low costs without regard to consequences. So the index the world badly needs in my opinion is this – the TCCI. That is, the True Cost of Cheap Index. The purpose of this index would be educational – to help us understand that if something sounds too cheap for our own good, we probably need to dig into the reasons for that cheapness, and act accordingly.

My quixotic index idea won’t materialize anytime soon. Or ever. But there are ways to get at this information. A favorite of mine is the GoodGuide site – where you can find out the true impact of consumer products. Rate them on personal health, environmental safety, and societal concerns – and customize those to your values. Information about consumer products and large, planet-altering energy initiatives – fracking, tar sands oil, mountaintop-removal coal mining – is available in plain sight. And there are some nascent efforts to filter lies, character assassination and delusional raving out of public forums. But we are often too entertained, busy or economically challenged to seek it out truth, or glean it through the smoke of corporate propaganda.

That’s where wise regulation comes in. Regulation prevents hell such as this disaster that would ensue should certain ideologues commandeer all the reins of power. Corporate control over the media and the message promotes our obsession with low prices and pignorance (pretend-ignorance) of the true costs, often called externalities. Many of us know we need to do better – including NPR’s Linda Wertheimer. I enjoyed her essay about the current disastrously paralyzed Congress, but her solution – replace out incumbent bums with a new cast – falls far short of what is needed. The only way to get us on a planet-wise track, in my opinion, is to solve the root problem – the corporate pollution that poisons our policy, and twists it in the name of pursuing the quick buck. We will move solidly in that direction when corporations are no longer people, my friends.

Punching Back with Wisdom and Respect

Star Tribune commentator Bonnie Blodgett received a rare and well-deserved opportunity recently. That is, to respond in print to a corporate spin doctor who had cherry-picked and tried to undermine a well-researched column Blodgett had written on the often invisible and carefully managed power of corporate agriculture. Few can exceed her as an expert connector of seemingly disparate situations and trends. Kudos to the Star Tribune for doing the right thing. And kudos to Bonnie for hanging in there for the sake of the planet.

“Pope-ulist!”

The leader of my church of origin is really making waves. Pope Francis has angry greedmeisters like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News trembling on their gilded soapboxes. The new pope has the audacity to demand that we care about the poor, and pursue policies of fairness and generosity. How quaint. How “Marxist.”

I was very impressed with the ideas of Bill Moyers’ guest, Tom Cahill. The author of Heretics and Heroes (newly added to my reading list) says this whole debate can be boiled down to a single choice between two movements in the world – kindness and cruelty. Sadly, we too rarely make the better choice.

But we can’t finish this piece without a nod to Jon Stewart’s brilliant satire of both the right wing’s revulsion at the Pope’s insistence on fairness, and the mythical “World War C.” This will leave you laughing, guaranteed.

Beauty from a Distance

It was 45 years ago, and I was fascinated by the space program. I could not get enough TV coverage, first of the capsules orbiting the moon, and then just months later, sending modules down to its surface. My dad encouraged my enthusiasm by painstakingly explaining to me a lot of the technical challenges NASA overcame.

The mission we celebrate here is Apollo 8 – a mere orbiter compared to the later “small step for man” achievement. But it was Apollo 8’s team effort that gave us the iconic image that has become known as “Earthrise” – a touchstone for the environmental movement.

Author Andrew Chaikin has done us a great service with his 2007 book A Man on the Moon and his description of the “Earthrise” achievement. He is also the narrator of a fine NASA video on the mission.

Climate Change – Current and Coming Attractions

As 2013 closes, we are making sadly little progress on building consensus. Denialist obfuscation notwithstanding, the situation grows more urgent by the day. Amazing how a mere 90 million tons of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by little old us every single day of every single year can cause problems, I know, but bear with me for several perspectives.

First, here is a well-constructed, comprehensive look at right now. Note the emphasis on solutions, if we only were to wake up. Next, a Climate Progress piece on specific 2013 climate events, none of them too sanguine. And finally, a concise, idea-packed NPR interview with Andrew Steer of the World Resources Institute. Though Steve Inskeep picks an inopportune time to be a “tough, skeptical journalist,” (see if you don’t agree), Steer communicates a lot on what needs to happen to build consensus and how that might happen – concerted, committed, collective pressure from consumers and shareholders. A celebrated highlight – the growth of low carbon cities. Viva the shoe and the bicycle!

2013: the Jaded (but Justified) Rear Mirror

Goshen NY blogger Tom Degan has done it again. If you have never read his Rant, you are missing wise and wise-guy blogging at its best. I love his jaundiced and spot-on year in review. The Worst of the Rant, indeed.

Innovations for New Years and Beyond

To provoke some forward thinking, I submit for your consideration CNN’s collection of 10 innovative ideas. Ranging from the practical but daunting (#1) to the “why the hell not?!” (#3) to the downright scary (#6), these will get you thinking about the future. Which is something we really need to do a lot more of. Along with acting more wisely, of course.

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry

Happy New Year to all IBI Watch Readers!  Thanks for your continued support, sharing and working to build sustainability!

Contributed links to this posting – Bonnie Blodgett, Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN





IBI Watch 11/24/13

24 11 2013

Information, Please  //

When it comes to food, full disclosure is the only rational policy. And yet, thanks to the immense political power of the food industry, progress on information access is a grinding battle. Take meat for instance. This change in federal regulations is a big deal. Of course, cost is the main reason a change like this does not go down easy. The change happened only to keep the United States in compliance with international trade agreements. But this detailed accounting of origin is really only one step to full information access. Some say that people don’t care about the footprint, or impact, or production consequences, of consumer goods. But I say we have not really tried to put that information front and center.

In the case of mass-produced meat, what if the suppliers were required also to include the consequences of factory meat farming practices – such as inhumane treatment of animals, the misguided overuse of antibiotics on factory farms, and maybe most important of all, the impact of meat production on the climate crisis? Think about it – when the average person goes to the average supermarket, all those neat plastic meat packages are stacked up, their sale supported by discounts in the store’s advertising flyer. Where is all that impact information? That is why the origin labeling is a good thing, but really only a baby step toward what needs disclosing.

It’s a similar situation with genetically modified organism crops, though precious little progress has happened. Debates continue about the long-term health effects, but GMO crops are implicated directly in the destruction of family farms (though you will see some progress at that link!) and indirectly in the decline of pollinators worldwide. Not to mention that they are the key to the growth in power of the evil empire of agriculture, Monsanto. Research continues on the immediate and long-term human health consequences of consuming GMOs. A rational approach would be to fully inform, and let consumers decide. Another bit of progress at the previous link.

And then there a huge, hidden information crisis. Walk through your average grocery store, and you will find this product right there on the label of countless baked goods, snack foods, personal care items and other products. It’s a “miracle” modern product, palm oil. This ubiquitous substance clearly meets many needs, and will no doubt receive yet another boost in popularity now that we are finally eliminating those heart-surgery-promoting trans fats (the change due at least in part to labeling requirements). But there is one problem.

Palm oil production is a blight on a particular corner of the world, and is pushing an amazing creature toward extinction. As you saw in the former of those past two links, sustainable practices are having a slight impact – something like a bandage on a gushing artery. And then there is the biggest picture, the climate change connection.

It’s one thing to read “palm oil” on a label of a cracker box or a bar of soap. But what if some of that information on environmental destruction were required to be available? Would people just ignore the messages, and go ahead and buy? We don’t really know.

And for another look at the big picture, the story not told on consumer product labels, there is the inherent irrationality. As Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz tells us in this New York Times piece, our agriculture system not only rewards excess production, it perpetuates and exacerbates wealth inequality.

What if the consequences of all our purchases were readily available? That is the idea behind an entire school of thought – life cycle assessment. For all of us on the end of the product chain, this information can help us assess the impact of any product before we buy it. The GoodGuide site, brainchild of Dana O’Rourke, is a tremendous resource. What if all of us committed to taking a look at this site instead of just the advertising before buying products?  The truth can set us free, and maybe help save the world – if we let it.

Warsaw’s Two Camps

For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, those two paired ideas – camps and Warsaw – evoke memories of the great East-West standoff. But today of course it is two different camps. And just as with the old matchup, the world’s fate hangs in the balance. This time, it is not the immediate extermination of life through a nuclear war, but the slow-moving (but accelerating) climate crisis. The division is familiar to anyone who follows the issue – it’s between the developed and developing worlds. And the current climate talks in Warsaw, predictably and sadly, show little sign of a planet-saving agreement in the offing.

The main battle now is over who is responsible – and should assist – in cleaning up the mess that the first century-plus of industrialization has created, and who should help poorer countries adapt and develop sustainably. Look at this chart to see who holds the biggest tab right now. Surprised? Me neither. And when you think about how we in the richer countries – especially the US – have externalized so much industrial production these past few decades, we are actually responsible for an additional large share of the developing world’s greenhouse emissions. Cheap is expensive.

Democracy Now ran an interview with two men who are arguing for “loss and damage” – Martin Khor, executive director of South Centre, and Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editor at the Hindu. You will be saddened – but probably not surprised – to see the US reaction to this idea. But what is even sadder is the content of the leaked document detailing the US strategy – also from Democracy Now.

There are reports as I write of a compromise. But it sure looks like more of kicking this can down the road, fiddling while Rome burns, rearranging Titanic deck chairs, choose your comparison. For a real, science-based solution? Consume less. Much less.

Busted at Last

This is a real blow against the gridlock that has paralyzed the Senate since President Obama’s election. Considering the dramatic escalation of filibuster use since 2008, the only real question to ask is – what took so long?! There is, of course, some fallout. And freak-out.  But for some additional good news on this story, look to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me – where one of the celebrity panelists pointed out that you do not hear this talked about as the “Nookyalar Option.”

A New Tornado Season

Until last week, many were marveling about the relatively quiet tornado season the US enjoyed in 2013. But wait. It’s not over yet. How unusual? You be the judge.

The Myth of Choice: How Junk Food Marketing Targets Kids – Guest Post

Guest blogger Rolly Montpellier (of the Boomer Warrior site) posts a commentary linking to an excellent new short video by Anna Lappe on striking back against the junk food marketeers.

Health Follies

I will stick to my pledge last week about not writing more Affordable Care Act stories . . . sort of. Nothing substantive here, mind you. But all you can do is stand aside and marvel at the gyrations we go through to preserve those corporate sacred cows, at the expense of, well, everything and everybody else. Here are a video, a cartoon and a timeless song for some bitterly funny entertainment.

50 Years on

Here is an observance on the JFK anniversary, from well-known blogger Tom Degan.

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.” – Ansel Adams

Contributed links or content to this posting – Mark Goldberg, Allyson Harper, Rolly Montpellier

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN