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Worrisome times

28 April 2009

I came back from NEFFA to a backlog of 173 articles in my RSS reader. Being a predictable person, my blogs pretty much cover two topics: Food and Economics.

Mostly it’s only a few depressing articles a day. I can generally handle them without much effect to my mood. But a five day backlog can be a bit sobering. I returned to discussions of unemployment and general recession chatter, and an utter outbreak of Swine Flu speculation. I hadn’t even heard of H1N1 when I left, and now it’s everywhere.

I try to remain optimistic. If nothing else, for my own sanity. I try to maintain some amount of faith in humanity to prevent me from settling in a depressive stupor, since that’s not at all functional. So I take joy in my immediate life and harbor strong hopes for the wider world.

But some days it’s harder than other.

The optimistic people talk about 9% unemployment is nowhere near as bad at the 25% during the great depression. But the 25% was from 1934. In the year after the 1929 crash, unemployment was 8.7% at the highest.

Granted, we know better this time. We recognize what’s going on, and we have an intelligent Keynesian president. We have safety nets. But we also have a much larger, more complicated system. A more tangled mess. Environmental worries are snowballing at an alarming rate. Problems seem to be happening faster and faster and solutions are caught up in bureaucracy, how can they catch up?

“Too big to fail” is a justification for propping up the banking sector. But “too big to win” seems more appropriate for humanity at the moment. Everything is so out of balance. In the medium run we’ll shift back to equilibrium, but what equilibrium will that be? Currently it looks bleak. Are there enough tools that we can make use of in the short run to alter our Destiny?

Nature operates in the long run, so is not really a factor here. Even if we blow ourselves up with nuclear war, she’ll survive us, and flourish long after we’re gone, whether in the form we know her now or something entirely different. Sustainability, Environmental Justice….all those movement have nothing to do with the survival of nature. It’s all about the survival of humanity. If the “save the earth” campaign was rebranded as “save the humans” would it have more support?

It’s a beautiful day outside, pink and yellow blossom amidst small green leaves everywhere under the bright blue sky. But also blazing hot. I have a lot to do, but I can’t focus well. Instead, I worry.

I used to research eschatology of different mythologies as a hobby. I stopped when I realized they disturbingly paralleled real life.

I cannot be optimistic today. I am afraid.



Economics Says… #2

12 April 2009

Economics’ third pillar is the assumption that good policies increase the range of choices an individual can make. Economists’ enthusiasm for income is driven by the view that more wealth gives people more choices. Our enthusiasm for political freedom has the same source. Economists talk about good policies increasing “utility levels” which is often understood as suggesting that these policies will make people happier. Happiness is an important emotion, but there is no sense in which it is particularly related to economist’s definition of utility. Formally, higher level of utility is equivelent of having more options, not wearing a smile.

Glaeser, Edward L., “The Economic Approach to Cities”, pg 3.

So, yeah. Economics is not the path to happiness. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something. And they’re probably not an economist.

If you want to read about whether more choice leads to more happiness, I recommend Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice

Paying All Costs

11 April 2009

The Great Vegetarianism Debate is something I try to stay out of. It’s not that I don’t have opinions on it. It’s more that I feel that my opinions tend to be misunderstood.

In general, I feel that vegetarianism is a a more lifestyle choice than an omnivorous one. But I also do not feel that vegetarians have an inherent moral superiority than non-vegetarians.

Mostly, my issue with vegetarianism is that it obscures the bigger issue. It’s not about whether you eat meat or don’t eat meat. It’s about whether or not you eat conscientiously. It’s about paying all costs.

What does food cost? The trite answer would be “what it says on the sticker at the supermarket”. But is what you pay really what food costs?

Rarely. Food production and supply is a very competitive industry. Therefore, most non-monetary costs, such as pollution, cruel treatment to animals and workers, soil degradation, are going to be externalized. The only costs you see in an apple are the dollar costs of production, labor, transit, and storage. And even then, not even. The grain industry, for example, is heavily subsidized, so the price the distributor pays the farmer does not even cover production costs.
Read more…

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

7 April 2009

yeah, yeah, I know this is belated. Sue me.

I have finally made it through Michael Pollan’s engaging book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. I am probably the last foodie on the internet to have read it.

Our dependence on the industrial food system is sobering. Frightening is our refusal as a society to think about it. Pollan’s approach is open-minded and curious, following the simple question “What should I eat” backwards to “what am I eating”?”, “Where did it come from?” Questions that more of us would rather not have answered.

My overall impressions is that it was well presented and accessible, and while I had more background knowledge than the average reader, it still told me new things and made me think. I often found myself drawing conclusions from the text that Pollan made explicit a few pages later.

Below are my thoughts on the individual sections.


Read more…

Economics Says…

6 April 2009

If the only ones who benefit from this celebration are those currently alive, it would be unfair to ask future generations to pay for any of those costs….Costs imposed on future generations should be commensurate with benefits received by them.

–Bluestone et al., The Urban Experience: Economics, Society, and Public Policy

Yet isn’t this exactly what we’re doing in terms of our environment? There is little economic justification for using up our natural resources now, putting our future into an ecological debt.

In some cases, debt is justified. Sometimes you need an influx of captial to get out of a period of recession and stagnation. But we’ve been borrowing and borrowing more in times of prosperity, instead of paying off the loans we already took. How does that make economic sense?

If, a hundred years from now, our great-grandchildren are still working to clean up the skies, still struggling to find enough food on a warmer climate with unpredictable and violent weather, how are we going to be remembered? Certainly not with fondness.

If we want to leave a planet that our children won’t hate us for, we need to start saving now.


The Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow

30 March 2009

I’m behind on my readings updates! Here’s one that I read a few weeks ago:

So I meant to check out The Earth Care Manual, a permaculture guidebook for Britain and temperate climates. However, due to a mix up on my part, I ended up with The Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, which is written for Australian climes. Ah well.

It was still a good read. It was designed very much for the person already set on creating a permaculture set up for their land, particularly in a rural or suburban setting. Ms Morrow stresses observation, giving the reader many assignments to get to know their land, using her farm and a friend’s suburban home as example cases. The graphics are simple and cartoonish, and there are many grids and datasheets providing examples of how the reader should go about organizing his observations and what they might mean.

Earth User’s Guide is not a deeply technical work, and indeed, one should probably go elsewhere for instruction of specific technique. However, as a permaculture design book, it is designed to make the reader aware of the space he owns, and of the interactions of the biotic and abiotic components of the ecosystems and how they will affect the growing pattern.

The stress on observation, initial and continuous, is crucial, I find. Permaculture requires a certain mindfulness, a certain intimate knowledge of the land. It is impossible to work in harmony with what you do not understand, and a generalized technical knowledge is not sufficient when each acre has it’s own microclimates. Modern monocultural industrial farming is a sort of brute force agriculture; the land is beaten into submission with long straight rows, pesticides, chemical fertilizer, and GM crops. Permaculture is more of a mental exercise; a continual sorting out of what works and what doesn’t, trying to create an environment that is both wholly natural and wholly edible.

More than sun and soil, Morrow stresses wind and water as prominent concerns regarding the layout of a garden. When possible, designs should incorporate animals as well as plants; not just domesticated animals, but the birds, insects, rabbits, and other wild creatures that are indigenous to your region.

While it is primarily an agricultural work, Morrow spends a significant amount of page space dedicated to home design. For this I am grateful; the concept of energy-efficient housing has long been discounted in the first-world because of the availability of indoor climate-control technologies, but is often a matter of simple design principles: extra insulation in cold climes, long eaves in sunny ones, courtyards in hot ones.

Overall, I found the book highly accessible, a good primer on the considerations necessary for permacultural living. And permaculture, despite being primarily of agricultural application, is indeed applicable to most parts of life -it’s living to stay. It’s quite a basic book, and anyone designing a permacultural space will need to find more in-depth and technical work, but if you don’t even know where to begin, The Earth User’s Guide is a good place for that.


Deep Economy: Balancing Marginal Returns

24 March 2009

Bill McKibban opens his wonderfully readable Deep Economy with an elegant metaphor: More and Better are two birds who for most of human history resided in the same bush. A person could throw the stone of his life’s pursuit at the bush with a good chance of hitting both. However, things have changed. In the first world today, better has moved to a different bush. But many people still have yet to realize that we now have to choose.

At it’s heart, Deep Economy is about a fundemental economic principle: The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns. DMR an almost universaly applicable phenomenon where each subsequent unit of a good or service obtained is worth less than the previous one. So that first ice cream cone might be delicious, the second unethusiastically good,, and by the fifth you might be downright sick of them.

Bill McKibben is telling us that we’re on our seventh cone of economic growth with sprinkles of environmental degredation. While the first couple provided us great gains of prosperity, utility, and happiness, the recent ones are not making us better off, and possibly even less happy.

Microeconomics tells you that the sensible thing to do is to build until marginal benefit equals marginal cost, but McKibban argues, and I agree, that we are already far past that inflection point.

Instead of ecoonomic growth, which we have too much of already, he proposes that we focus our energies on cultivating communities. Americans have sacrificed community in favor of a materialistc hyper-individualism, which worked until we overdosed. If our economy, our society is more community based we will be happier with a simultaneous lessened desire to consume fewer material resources.

(McKibban provides the caveat that there are still some places where More = Better, mostly in poor developing countries, where close-knit families and communties exist (and in some clases, might be all they have) but their lack of material prosperity provides a very low quality of life.)

Most of the book deals with providing examples of successful local community initatives: Urban market gardens in Cuba, Local radio in Vermont, Bus Rapid Transit in Brazil, “community intersections” in Portland, small-farmer rabbit co-ops in China, CSAs in Massachusettes and the possibility of localizing the food supply. He wants to reinforced that a “deep economy” is not only a theoretically possibility, but a budding reality.

Considerations McKibban does not touch on are how to speed change from a “more”-focused society to a “better”-focused one (besides, of course, everyone buying his book and becoming enlightened…) and what kind of econometric model would be necessary to consider all manners of costs and utilities. Of course, the latter is outside the lay scope of his book, but possibly necessary if Sustainable Economics is to be considered a sersious discipline within in the field.

McKibban does not advocate a radical shift to frugality and communes nor roamnticizes peasent living. Instead, he is a champion of balance, something much of our society sorely lacks.

Bill McKibban is a sustainable economist.