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

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IBI Watch 6/2/13

2 06 2013

Happy-Talk or Sustainability? //

The future world will be the result of our choices as individuals, but also as societies. I think about that when I hear the growing chorus of well-meaning people who have a “solution” to the mounting crisis of bee die-off. They prescribe a laudable individual choice – plant more flowers, particularly native varieties. You can glean plenty of that good advice in this recent Star Tribune article, and also this NPR interview with scientist Marla Spivak.

It’s hard to argue with advice such as planting less grass and more flowers. After all, our chemically nurtured lawns are a big part of the problem – grass is nothing like a natural habitat for insects, and the fertilizers and weed killers create all manner of environmental problems. But this is clearly a case where individual virtue can make us feel good, but will go only so far in solving the serious environmental problem.

Articles about bee decline, or colony collapse disorder, carry a common theme. It could have multiple causes, we are told – fungus, landscape changes, mites, etc. Neonicotinoid pesticides are mentioned, but sometimes as an afterthought. Minnesota author William Souder – who recently wrote an acclaimed biography of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson – sees a Silent Spring connection. And look at this piece from MPR featuring beekeeper Steve Ellis. Make sure you watch the imbedded two-minute video.

Since research shows the pesticides affect bees’ navigation and orientation, and that is exactly what beekeepers are observing, a sensible approach would be to ban the stuff – particularly considering what is at stake. Our friends in Europe have seen enough. To us environmentalists, that sure looks like a prudent choice, considering the evidence and the risk. But here in the US, we are no nervous nellies, by God.

I fear this controversy is devolving into another policy-paralyzing stalemate – like the granddaddy of those standoffs, climate change. Powerful moneyed interests insist there is no danger, or insufficient proof, or the cost of fixing the problem is too high – as the situation warrants. Pick your business-as-usual-preserving argument, and go for it. It’s a winning formula. Just ask ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, back in the news this week with some creative new magical thinking.

Though the issue of bee decline is not as much in the public eye – for now – as climate change, I see the cause of “controversy” and resultant policy paralysis as one and the same – corporate control of the system. (How is that last article for a laugh?) The cure is the same as well – getting corporate money out of politics.

If we don’t get smart, we will push pollinators, the climate and who knows what else beyond the point of recovery before we finally set about creating sustainable, common-good policies that serve us all in the long run. In the meantime, let’s plant lots of pretty native flowers. They provide some beauty as we rearrange the deck chairs. And let’s play some fiddle music while we watch the fires. Worked well for Nero.

Climate Change Awareness and Action

Despite the almost daily recent weather events with varying levels of connection to climate change – the repeated pounding of the Plains by tornadoes and armadas of slow-moving storms, the freakish late-spring snowstorm in the Adirondacks, the fast-melt flood destruction of a small Alaska village to name just a few, a significant portion of the American public has still not connected with reality. Part of this refusal to respect scientific facts – carbon dioxide at about 400 parts per million is radically changing weather patterns – can be traced to the propaganda of Tillerson and company. But not all of it. Remember that accepting manmade climate change as real will require change and sacrifice, especially from us in the comfortably rich West. That’s inconvenient, and we just wanna be happy.

But prominent activists are keeping up the pressure. Former Vice President Al Gore’s latest message compares our treatment of the atmosphere to dumping waste in a sewer. Dr. Paul Ehrlich – he of The Population Bomb fame – writes about planetary limits. And Organizing for Action is raising a ruckus within the Obama Administration – trying to get the president to take a stance worthy of his campaign positions on climate change issues – mainly the Keystone XL pipeline.

This blog post offers suggestions for our mission – should we choose to accept. That would be – talking to ideological conservatives about climate change. The prime directive – awaken a critical mass of the public so we can build climate-friendly policies and clean energy before it is too late. The single biggest step, I believe, would be a carbon fee, along the lines of the system suggested by activist and former NASA meteorologist James Hansen. And an essential interim step is halting the madness of tar sands oil, by rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline – a main cause of longtime climate activist Bill McKibben.

Ceding Land to Nature

For environmentalists, it’s an inviting prospect – returning certain lands to something like a wild state. Watch this short video by George Monbiot (author of Heat) to get an idea of what this is about. If this sounds a bit romantic, quixotic, that’s because it is. While Monbiot points out that an area the size of Poland will be abandoned by agriculture in the next several decades, it is hard to imagine burgeoning humanity purposefully returning vast swathes of land to wildness. And yet, our technological blunders and wars have set up some dramatic, if little-realized, examples of just that.

Take Chernobyl’s neighborhood. Various accounts – including this one – have described Mother Nature’s rebound in the devastated area deemed too radioactive for human habitation. And further to the east – the standoff between the Kim dynasty in North Korea and its southern adversary has brought an endless hair-trigger drama to the peninsula. But the DMZ that divides the countries is something of a natural paradise – with no nuclear disaster either. Both areas, and so many others, are explored in a book I can’t recommend strongly enough – The World Without Us. Forget the movie by the same name, but I can guarantee that Alan Waisman’s book will get you thinking in new ways about the relationship between the natural world and humankind’s stamp upon it.

If Korea’s dictators named Kim finally come to their senses, and when Chernobyl’s curies finally diminish to tolerable levels for humans, it is hard to imagine wise leaders setting such prime real estate aside for nature. But still, groups dream and – more important – act.  The DMZ Ecology Research Institute’s work is featured in this post. There appears to be no group specifically working to preserve the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but you can learn more here from Voice of America’s bureau chief in Moscow.

Closer to home, and actually all over, this group works to connect wild areas, even in the midst of ribbons of freeways. That is exactly the message that emerges from another of my oft-recommended sources, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo.

Own a Little Less; Share a Little More

I am a lifelong advocate for and user of public transit. I started out riding to high school via the Q1 bus and the E train in Queens NY. Nowadays, I live in a southeast suburb of St. Paul MN. I still find ways to use transit whenever possible – I rarely drive to work for instance. But many people resist public transit because they “need” a car. And indeed, transit does not go everywhere. But several encouraging trends are sidelining more autos – and the beneficiaries are many. First, check this NPR story on bicycle sharing systems. It’s well produced and tells a very positive story. And car sharing is also on the rise. Here is an overview, with a cover quote from, of all people, the Chairman of Ford Motor Company. Young people are just not as enamored with the car as my generation, and that is a good thing for this crowded planet of ours.

Dingbats Stifled

There are two losses to report this week.

When the passing of Jean Stapleton was announced yesterday, I felt I had lost a member of my family. Her most famous character, All in the Family’s Edith, was the wise, kind foil to her husband, the irascible bigot Archie Bunker. OK, so my mom is not much like Edith. My dad on the other hand, had much in common philosophically with the immortal Arch. I reminded him of this so frequently that for the last few years of his life, he called me Meathead at least as often as I called him Arch. Of course, Stapleton was a fine actress who had other roles, including a portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt. RIP, Jean Stapleton. Those were indeed the days.

The other passing is not a death at all, but a departure nonetheless. If you can watch the eight-minute farewell video, you have more patience than me. (For a shorter, comical version try this.) But scroll down for the amazing, facts-be-damned quote collection. What politician has provided more entertainment than our own Michele Bachmann? I am indeed sad to report this departure. And cartoonists are in mourning all over. But let’s give credit where it is due. The lady did win four congressional elections – no small achievement. And she also set herself up as a weighty scientific voice. Aye, we will miss ye dearly, Congresswoman Bachmann.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

― Albert Einstein

 

Contributed links to this posting – Allyson Harper

 

Blogger – Michael Murphy, St. Paul MN