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Nina's Blog

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What will drive tomorrow's economy?

Here is my dilemma:

Today's economic engine is fired by stuff. It is the production, manufacturing, and distribution of stuff that keeps our marketplace humming. That is what this economic downturn is reminding us. When we stop buying, the economy starts tanking. But to buy more stuff degrades the environment. More stuff equals more mining, more manufacturing, more housing, more land development, more stores, more driving, more shopping, more throwing away, more waste.

To save the economy, then, we have to buy more stuff. To buy more stuff, though, is to harm our world.

Which forces the question: How do we break this cycle? If we wish to save the environment, ourselves, and our finances, what will drive tomorrow's economy?

There seem to be two possible solutions: (1) either we should make stuff more-efficiently, ie, more sustainably; or (2) we should build an economy not based on stuff. Or both.

Few of us want to envision a future built on "less." We live in a world that imagines that more is more, more is better. Almost everyone, from the most developed lands to the least 'emerging markets,' want more. And how can we say no to that? It would be both mean-spirited and fruitless for us Americans, who are but 5% of the world's population and yet consume 25% of the world's resources, to tell others they cannot aspire to the quality of life that we live here.

In this vision, then, if world consumption grew to match US consumption, we would need multiple earths to meet that demand. Since we don't carry around extra earths in our pockets, we will have to think of something else.

One suggestion is to make more stuff than we do now in better ways. Efficiency and recycling, cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, is one suggested solution. In this view, we dare to imagine that no matter how many of us there are, and no matter how big our appetites, if we can devise cyclical, sustainable, waste-free ways of manufacturing and consuming, all will be well. Done right, there will be enough money and resources for all.

I do not doubt that efficiency is a critical and necessary piece of the puzzle. Doing more with less is almost always advisable. And we know it is achievable to some extent. Years ago, California instituted energy efficiency procedures. In response, over the past 30 years, its energy consumption per capita has plateaued, remaining flat at just under 8,000 kwh per person, while the US average per capita usage has soared to 12,000 kwh. At the same time, California's average per capita GDP has surpassed the US average. (source: California Energy Commission; via Congressman Bartlett's power point).

And yet the question remains: is this sufficient?

First, there is the challenge by some that GDP is not an appropriate measure of a country's health, indeed that a country's quality of life can be sinking even as the economic indicators are rising . (For more information on this, and the alternative measure of GPI, check out Redefining Progress at www.rprogress.org. I will write more on this in another entry.) To be fair, the cradle-to-cradle view leans more to GPI than GDP. Still, is that enough?

Second, no matter how efficiently we live, no matter how creatively we stretch the natural laws of the earth's carrying capacity, we will eventually bump up against its limits, and be constrained by them.

And third, even if there were no natural limits to expansion and growth, are there not spiritual limits? Don't we need to ask at some point: Are we there yet? Isn't this enough? One quick example: over the last 30 years, America's average house doubled in size. Doubled. What was acceptable and sufficient, and perhaps even comfortable thirty years ago, is small and tight and unacceptable today. Yet today's households - the number of people living in these houses - are smaller. One report says: "As household size has decreased, the floor area per capita has increased by more than a factor of 3, from 286 square feet per capita in 1950 to 847 square feet per capita in 2000."

Of course, this trend may be temporarily reversing itself during this recession, as family and friends move in with family and friends. But that may be just the point: larger houses, representing our overall bloated consumer habits, didn't make us happier. In fact, one could argue that because we pursued more than we needed, we ended up with less than we had. And as the AIG bonus fiasco has shown us, those at the very top of the mess have developed a tin ear to the ethics of money. Do we really want people running our economy who only or mostly think of money and short-term profit, regardless of risk, rectitude, righteousness or social justice?

According to some happiness or satisfaction surveys, even before this recent economic downturn, Americans were no happier than we were decades ago (and perhaps a little less so). Nor are we the most satisfied nation on the planet.

Spiritually, then, even if we could have ever more, without cease, is that what we would want? Is that what would make us happy? Is that what our purpose in life is?

Once we pass a threshold of comfort, health and viability, how much do we need? At what point do we say, enough?

Which takes us back to our question: what will fire the enginen of our economy if not stuff?
Can we build another model?

Can it be driven by the services we provide one another: teaching, nursing, protecting, research, companionship, repairing, fixing, developing, curing, entertaining, transporting, etc. instead of making unnecessary stuff?

It is reported that Americans spend $2.6 billion on wrapping paper a year. What if we put our gifts in reusable bags (saving both the earth and our money) and instead, took the savings and with it, renovated our schools, and created community gardens, retrofitted old factories into green manufacturers, and increased and improved our social work, police and home aide work force?

Stuff will continue to be made to the extent that all these services, and our needs, require it. But wouldn't it be better if we didn't make stuff just so we can make a living but rather made a living with a minimum of unnecessary stuff. A quote in the Baltimore Sun business section on Tuesday, March 17, page 10, talking about the hard times an up-scale clothing store is going through, reads: "You have to try and encourage a 'wants'-based shopper in America and give people a reason to go out and make that purchase."

Is that really what we want to do? Waste our money on things we don't need so it can go to who-knows-where, instead of using that same money to do all the things we as a society say we need to do but can't afford? At what price is such a "want-based" society? What does it cost us in children who go to bed hungry, families without support systems and an environment that continues to degrade?

What would a healthy society, and a healthy economy, not based on wants and stuff really look like? I would love to know the answer.

We need to see this recession as a game-changer. It is not just something we need to get through so we can return to the good old days. We need to use this crisis to see the underlying ills that brought it on and build a new, renewable, economic model, to heal the earth, protect our bodies and enrich our souls.

Then, all the pain we are all going through will have been worth it.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

stuff and us

Let me say at the outset that I believe in stuff. You know, the whatever we pull out of the ground, get from growing things and shear off live animals to make up the things we own and use. I believe we need houses to live in, chairs to sit on, clothes to cover us. I believe we need sinks and pots, pillows and pans, knives and pockets, shelves and shoes. I believe also that we need tchotchkes of some sort and to some degree, for it is our choice and display of unnecessary (discretionary) stuff that defines and expresses who we are even more than the styles and design of our necessary (essential) stuff.

So while I may be a minimalist when it comes to stuff (except books, and most recently their distant cousin, pocketbooks), I believe in stuff. Which is why watching now how we are learning to deal with our stuff, or more accurately, our loss of stuff and our limited ability to accumulate more stuff, offers a fascinating study of raw, radical human identity.

What happens when we can't define ourselves by or drape ourselves in new stuff? What happens when all we own is all we have to express our selves by? Who are we when we are stripped of the proclamation of self through stuff? The answer seems to be, "I" is increasingly found in "we". That is, "I" find myself less in my things and more in my people; less in my accumulated symbols and more in my collection of community. We seem to be turning to each other, our past and our present close circles of family and friends. They are enduring, and hopefully do not size us up and measure us by our stuff, but by our being.

So in hard times the old becomes golden, and the home becomes haven. Family become friends again and we find companionship and entertainment in the close, cheap and mundane. And that is good!

Video games, for example, have been selling like hotcakes. NPR reported in December 2008 that "overall video game sales are up 43 percent from this time in 2007". (Hotcakes, btw, were a hot commodity in America in the 1700s. Made of cornmeal and fried in animal fat, they were good home-cooked food sold at church functions and county fairs. They were a way to bring home-ness to the public domain.)

The movie business is booming, too. Despite netflix, movies on demand, downloads and the old-fashioned rent a flick, in these trying times, more people than ever are plunking down $10 or so to sit in a dark room with strangers and friends to share an experience that sometimes takes them far away, and sometimes powerfully hits home. Ticket sales are up sixteen percent over last year, according to the NYT. We may no longer be a nation united by broadcast tv or Sunday night's The Wonderful World of Disney, but we are still united by the movies.

I am far from the first to note that in tough economic times we turn toward each other and away from the ephemeral limitations of stuff. Our senses sharpen and we reject the veneer of modern sociability for the more durable, real pleasure of people and stories. Having little money, or worrying about whatever money we have, makes use realize that we are so much more than the numbers on our ledgers. We are not worth less, nor is our value diminished, because our accounts are lighter.

Rather, we realize, we are worth more. Our costly gifts become ourselves, our time, our attention and affection. So much more valuable than that expensive bag. For that gift, that jewel, that momentarily joy-making closet fodder will most likely cease to bring joy once the warmth of its transaction has fled.

So, it is here we learn that less-is-more, and enjoy the presence of each other.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On hospitality

With the most dire economic projections suggesting that perhaps 50 million people world-wide may be out of work in the depths of this depression, now might be a good time to talk about hospitality.

To many of us, hospitality is some vague social nicety that encourages us to open our doors to dinner guests and occasional meetings, card games or book clubs. It might mean welcoming family for weekend visits, holiday meals, or family reunions, and if you are in the more observant community, it might mean putting up strangers who are visiting your shul for a family simcha. In fact, those are valuable social niceties that multiply and enrich, in small ways, life's social encounters and strengthen the knitting of society.

But now is when we will learn the true meaning of hospitality, the way it is understood in desert communities, or was practiced among the "overlanders," the intrepid Americans who traveled from Missouri to settle on the west coast in the mid-1800's, or in any society or migrant population when scarcity and dislocation rudely reared up.

To us, hospitality means sharing a bit of our excess. When we expect guests, we prepare and shop for more. When they stay over, we offer a guest room. Our stores are not usually diminished, our portion is not truly burdened, when we extend our hand and home in hospitality. Most often, though not always, we offer hospitality on our schedule. Some of us may feel a little put out, or may sense some invasion of privacy. But these are conceits and blessings of luxury and muchness. For, in fact, most of us can afford the space, the time and the money. to be hospitable. It is a small badge of honor we still cherish. And we know the guests will leave soon.

But in this economic climate, when people are losing their homes and their jobs, hospitality may be pressing instead of optional. Family and friends may need to take guests in. Our guests might be able to pay or they may not. There might be an end date in sight or there may not. And while our guests may be grateful, they may not be gracious. For they may come with emotional baggage filled with loss, embarrassment, guilt and anger.

That is when the true test of hospitality begins. When we are asked to bring others into our sphere, allow them to share our limited supply of food and space and time. It does not mean that our guests have no obligation to give back to us. They may assist in the home-work when they are with us. Or they may not, being overwhelmed at the moment. They may return our kindness to us years from now. Or they may repay our generosity by showing the same to others.

Or perhaps even this picture is too rosy. Perhaps we will not be the hosts pressed into service for our loved ones. Perhaps we will be the supplicants, the reluctant guests needing to live off the generosity of others. It is intriguing that the words guest and host come from the same root, as if to reinforce the fact of their mutuality, reciprocity. That is, not only do I need a guest to make me a host (hence, mutuality) but while today I am the host, tomorrow I may need to be the guest (hence, reciprocity). Such awareness arouses my humility and my patience, no matter which side of the equation I am on at the moment.

We are living in a time that will challenge us all. It will challenge our generosity, our sense of entitlement, our boundaries, our sense of self. It will ask us to think deeply about what is truly ours; how much we truly need; what is best, and rightly, shared. It will ask us to judge ourselves and others more grandly than by our income and what we crudely call "worth". It will ask us to measure life by the truer standards of goodness and joy and satisfaction.

Perhaps, then, in this dark time, we will learn to be guided by the gentler lights of simple joy and the elegance of enoughness that have been outshone by the blinding glare of the rush for more. If so, that would be a lesson we can all take to the bank.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

green stimulus

For those of you who do not regularly read Grist (one of the best green news services), here is a rundown of the green items in the proposed stimulus package:

The $789 billion economic-recovery bill looks good in terms of green spending, according to preliminary analysis from the Center for American Progress. The House and Senate reached agreement on the bill on Wednesday and are expected to approve it by the end of the week; President Obama hopes to sign it into law by Presidents' Day.

The bill contains at least $62.2 billion in direct spending on green initiatives and $20 billion in green tax incentives, while funding for nuclear and coal projects was dropped from the final version. Here's the breakdown:

Energy transmission and alternative energy research:

$11 billion for smart grid
$7.5 billion for renewable energy and transmission-line construction
$400 million for the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy for the development of alternative energy sources and efficiency

$4.5 billion for energy-efficiency improvements to federal buildings
$6.3 billion for local government energy-efficiency grants
$2.25 billion for energy-efficiency retrofits for low-income housing
$2.25 billion for the HOME Investment Partners Program to retrofit community low-income housing
$5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program for efficiency in low-income households
$510 million for energy-efficiency retrofits for Native American housing programs
$420 million for energy-efficiency improvements at the Department of Defense
$300 million for Department of Defense research on energy efficiency at military installations
$300 million for the appliance rebate program for Energy Star products
Mass transit and advanced automobiles:

$8.4 billion for transit capital assistance programs
$8 billion for Amtrak and intercity passenger rail
$300 million for the purchase of more alternative-fuel and hybrid vehicles for the federal fleet
$300 million in grants and loans for technologies that reduce diesel emissions
Green jobs training:

$500 million for green jobs programs through the Workforce Investment Act

Most "enviros," as the motley collection of green movement advocacy leaders are called, are very pleased.

I will be back with my more personal blogs very soon! Meanwhile, at least there is a green lining in this sad economic climate we find ourselves in.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

environmental lessons from economic collapse

Everyone agrees that our economic crisis is in large measure anthropogenic, that is, due to human behavior, living larger than we could afford, taking more than we could return, wanting more than is either reasonable or fair to expect. That is, we loaned more than was just so we could reap more than we sowed; borrowed more than we could replenish with what we can earn; divvied up, spread out, and pawned off the responsibility so that no one truly could be blamed, or could even have been moved to care.

Now we are paying the price.

And the price is very steep. It was forced on us by these regrettable circumstances. But I can't help imagining for a moment, what if, way before the crisis, independent of any impending crisis, say two years ago, we had taken $350 billion dollars and spread it around to invent 98% efficient solar energy conversion panels, electric cars and the infrastructure to support them, fixed all our bridges, roads, schools; built amazing inter- and intra-city public transit; increased teacher salaries; improved our social services to our nation's most needy. How much good - economic, environmental and social - would that have done?

Nope. Too expensive. So instead we lost billions in the stock market, and are spending billions more to bail out a profligate market with uncertain returns.

Now, translate all these lessons into the environmental problem. It too is anthropogenic, human-made. Here too we are living larger than we can afford, taking more than we can return, dipping into the principle when we should be living off the interest, forgetting that the atmosphere and sea are finite and not endlessly able to absorb our waste.

Scholars, analysts, prophets tell us we do not make radical changes unless faced with crises. But here is the bright side. Perhaps in this one instance, we can use the lessons of the financial crisis to motivate us to respond to an impending yet still avoidable environmental crisis. For the truth is, we will one day soon recover from this economic crisis, hopefully even in the next year or two. But we cannot and will not speedily recover from the crash of the environment, not in our lifetime, or the lifetime of our children, not even in this century.

These dual crises we face are not only similar in their structure, but gratefully and blessedly also in their solutions. By using green technology to fuel economic health; producing goods in a cyclical, no waste, cradle-to-cradle style; living wisely - consuming only what we can appropriately replenish - we can build an enduring, sustainable economy and environment; tending more to service - being with, educating, doing for and tending to each other - can build an economy pegged to human welfare and not collection of stuff.

Erich Fromm and Abraham Joshua Heschel among thousands of others have taught it: our culture needs to change from a predominant mode of stuff and "having" to a predominate mode of relationship and "being." That is good for what is called the triple bottom-line: people, planet, and profit. One integrated solution for one just, healthy, good world.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I support local, seasonal eating - for now

Thanksgiving might very well be America's favorite holiday. It comes at a time when the weather is getting colder and we, in the more northern parts of the country at least, look forward to gathering and cuddling together in our snug, warm homes (even if we are occasionally distracted by wondering how to improve efficiency and reduce our heating bills and CO2 emissions). It is a holiday free from the frenzy of gift-giving, and we are neither measured, nor measure others, by the bounty or price of the gifts that are given.

We don't even have to do think much about what to serve: the menu (often the hardest part of planning celebrations) is largely pre-set.

But one of the lessons of Thanksgiving's feast that is often lost on all of us grateful holiday gluttons, is that it reflects the once essential trait of eating locally and seasonally.

Of course we all know this, but eating local and seasonal foods on Thanksgiving seems more charming than inevitable, as it was 400 years ago. Ideally this year at least, our Thanksgiving menu will remind us of the blessings, and the challenges, of a global food market.

Let me go on the record as being an agnostic about the ultimate value of local, seasonal eating. I am not convinced that eating pumpkins in the fall in Baltimore is inherently more ethical or environmentally sound than eating bananas - if we can control for several factors. We are a global community, and my purchases of certain foods can mean the difference between financial security and poverty for some family I will never meet and some community I will never visit. Many foods that will never grow in Baltimore are not only healthy and good for but also are aesthetically pleasing and might be an essential part of our diets. Simpler living - which I highly advocate - does not always mean only local living.

However, at the same time, I need to be sure that the production and harvesting of these foods are done in sustainable ways - that woodlands, hillsides and tropical forests have not been denuded for my indulgent gastronomic choices; that the workers are not exploited; that fertilizers and pesticides are not wastefully, inappropriately and unhealthily used (if at all); and that fossil fuels are not expended spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If, and I would like to think when, we can be assured that food is produced, processed and transported sustainably and equitably, we would then not be constrained by the location of its growth. That is, if - and hopefully when - food can move as carbon-neutrally and as sustainably 3,000 miles as it does 50 miles, then all food can be considered local.

This is what we are seeking when we talk about fair trade coffee. That we carve out this special niche of foreign food is motivated mostly by our addiction to caffeine, and our equally laudable desire to consume it without guilt. Likewise our desire for sugar, chocolate, tea and other exotic staple foods that we would be most unhappy without. Can we not extend the same criteria which allow us to get our morning rush and our endorphine pleasures to other sorts of commodities?

To be sure, in the absence of these guarantees of ethical, sustainable food production and distribution, local, seasonal eating becomes an ethical imperative. And today, since such assurances are not given and transportation is largely based on fossil fuel, and wasteful production contributes tragically to increased greenhouse gas emissions, eating closer to home is the ethical thing to do. But hopefully we can right these wrongs, and thus local eating might best be seen as a transitional behavior, and not an absolute one.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bidding 5768 goodbye

The difficulties we are experiencing at the end of this year are certainly making it a pleasure to bid it goodbye. The financial markets worldwide, led by the United States mortgage fiasco, are teetering and fragile. Unemployment is up. Consumer confidence is down. Ethical behavior is in tatters. Basic rights guaranteed under the constitution of the United States are sliced away in the guise of security and our own best interest. How could the Treasury Secretary even imagine, even as a bargaining ploy, to dare ask for the exclusive, non-reviewable, non-challengeable, non-supervised right to single-handedly manage and distribute $700 billion?

And we just learned that despite all our efforts at stabilizing our atmospheric greenhouse gases, they rose 3% this past year, almost all increases coming from the developing world. China - now the largest contributor to greenhouse gases - is responsible for 60% of this 3% increase. The good news is that we in the "developed world" are holding our emissions steady - and soon might be able to see them decline. Just this past week Maryland and nine other eastern states held their first Regional Greenhouse Gas carbon auction, which will both limits CO2 emissions and create funds for alternative energy research.

So while things are looking rough we cannot throw up our hands. Just as China is beginning to crack down on manufacturing abuses that are killing their children, sooner or later China will begin to crack down on the pollution that is killing the world's environment. And when they do, we should be ready with technologies that can help them. Then, we will be the grand exporters and China the importers. We will turn the economic tables. Green industry, research and technology can re-establish America at the head of the technological revolution and enable us to become the green industry leaders. But we must invest well, fully and wisely.

This is not the time to be timid.

We created the money to prosecute a fabricated war; and to bail out a banking industry that could have avoided this whole fiasco if it just did not seek usurious rates from greed-driven mortgages.

We might not think we have any money left over for grand, Manhattan Project like efforts to green our industries, but surely if we do not invest in efficiency technologies, in new renewable forms of energy, we will within ten years be spending billions of dollars we also do not have to take care of people displaced by - and repair their homes damaged in - increasingly angry storms, spend more money on a gallon of clean water than a gallon of gasoline when local water systems are polluted and unhealthy, heat and cool our homes with over-priced energy that continues to degrade the environment.

The environmental picture is not looking much better despite all our efforts. But we cannot stop - rather must work harder. How do we do that and not give in to despair? What keeps us going?

No doubt we each have our own answer. In no small measure it is the company we keep, the comforting and encouraging presence of those who care just as much as we. And just like the star thrower - who threw back all the starfish he could, even thought there were many more he could not - we do what we can, hoping that cumulatively someday it will all add up to something big. No doubt someday it will.

And some of us keep going for the pure joy we get from less, from a life of increased simplicity. From buying less, and wasting less, and disturbing the world less. Surprisingly, the less gives me so much more - a greater appreciation of all, an awareness of worlds in littler things and individual acts. Being green isn't just good; it is fundamentally, life-alteringly, fulfilling.

My very best wishes to you all for a healthy, sweet, green new year, filled with its full share of blessings that will heal this fractured world of ours.

Shana tova

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

staying at home

For a host of reasons that you know all too well, many of us are staying closer to home. Job insecurity, stock market decline, rising energy costs, unstable food prices. Spending money on a discretionary trip right now feels expensive, if not downright extravagant.

So we forgo it, make do without and plan for next year.

But staying at home need not be the disappointing, second-best, self-sacrifice it sometimes is made out to be.

As a student of homes and how we live in them, I feel like it is time for me to come out of the closet. I like staying home. I like the way the house changes its pace and patterns when I am on vacation. And I like the way it teaches and changes me in turn.

Vacation schedules differ from work schedules, and our lighting patterns broadcast that. Lights in a house are like semaphores on a ship. The pattern with which they go on and off reflect the nature and purpose of the life we inhabit. We see this more in others than ourselves. An episodic change in the lighting habits of a neighbor often signals a celebration, a meeting, trouble, even death. A habitual change often signals a new neighbor. Changing our lighting pattern reflects a change in our habit.

So too in the use of rooms. The kitchen often enjoys more company on vacation as I learn to make new dishes, using both familiar and exotic foods (even locally grown foods can be exotic to natives depending on our food habits). Or the kitchen is abandoned as I seek to avoid all forms of domesticity and housekeeping.

My husband's paternal grandmother, a diminutive powerhouse of a homemaker, used to say it didn't matter where they went for vacation - as long as she didn't have to cook. (That was a difficult wish to fulfill for a kosher family in America in the early to mid-20th century.) For her, vacation was more a release from responsibilities, a liberated time allowing for a reconnection with and elevation of primacy of self than a discovery of others. I imagine that if her husband had hired a cook and cleaning crew to take over those chores every day for two weeks, despite her initial protestations (they would mess things up, they would break things, they would lose things, they would get in the way...), she would have been in heaven. (Though he might have heard some requisite fault-finding in their performance afterward.)

There is great spiritual power in the discovery of others: other places, other cultures, other foods, other habits, other ways of time, other kinds of flora and fauna, other use of natural resources. And travel is a prime way to experience that discovery.

But we often overlook the spiritual power of re-discovery of self, of home, of us in our place. There is so much we take for granted, overlook, never even knew.

Perhaps the unspoken gift of this time of increased at-home-ness will be this rediscovery of self and place. And with this rediscovery, a re-enchantment of self in place.

I am hoping over the summer months to publish several entries that speak to the discoveries and blessings we can encounter at home as we save fuel and energy and money by Staying at Home.

I hope to write about closets and neighborhood trees and home-spun entertainment and walking and all the sundry discoveries of the mysteries and hidden joys that we miss during the busyness of our lives.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

gender, service and the economy

WYPR's business commentator, Anirban Basu, reported today that there were really two economies in this recession: one for men and one for women. That is, whereas men have lost 700,000 jobs recently, women have gained 300,000 jobs. He goes on to explain that the jobs most vulnerable now are the ones men traditionally occupy: manufacturing and construction, while the job sectors that are growing are the ones that women traditionally occupy: teaching and healthcare.

While Basu couched this insight in gender terms, it is so much more than that. It is, if we allow it to be, the opening insight into the necessity of redesigning the definition of a vibrant economy. That is, instead of building a successful economy on paying more and more people to make more and more things (and encouraging the consumer to buy more and more things), we can build an economy on paying more and more people to do more and more things, like service -oriented jobs, healthcare, homecare, childcare, eldercare, teaching, coaching, protecting, training.

Maryland began to experiment with this changed view of the economy when it suggested taxing computer services. I am not here engaging in the debate of whether that particular effort was right or wrong. What I want to stress is that it opened up for the general public an awareness, whether conscious or not, that services are also a "good" produced by society. Why, it seemed to ask us, do we distinguish between the two in the tax code? If we tax the one (goods), would we not tax the other (services)?

(I am sure this is a topic that has been hotly debated among economists for a while. And I would bet this sounds naive to the finance cognoscenti. Indeed, I would love to hear economists weigh in on this subject and teach the rest of us benighted folks what the state-of-the-art thinking is on the status of goods and services. But I write as one of the public - not an economist.)

Truth be told, I never thought of that before. I never wondered why we pay 6% more for the stuff we buy but not for the things people do for us. The divide between things we buy, which incur a sales tax, versus services we buy, which do not, create a psychological divide in our mind between the two. Again, I am not arguing about whether sales taxes are good, or whether we should tax services. I am only arguing that the way we structure our tax system indicates different attitudes toward services and goods, and thus the economic value we attach to them.

The good news about Basu's report is that gender issues are now so mainstream that one cannot look at society without viewing it through a gender-sensitive lens. The challenge we learn with Basu's report is that we have to now make the environment as ever-present and sensitive a lens through which to read economic trends. For with such a green lens on, we can read these same figures as trending toward a healthier, more futuristic, sustainable economy - reducing our reliance on the creation of unnecessary "stuff" to keep the economic wheels greased (thereby bringing manufacturing more in line with the needs and rhythms of the earth) and increasing our output and investment in service, a marketplace with never-ending demand.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

biofuels, environmental degradation and world hunger

We now know that the very thing we hoped would become a multifaceted solution has, like Frankenstein, become a multifaceted nightmare. The real-world experience of biofuels has shown us that biofuels: ratchet up prices for basic food staples which they are displacing or diverting exacerbating world-wide hunger; they are driving increased destruction of virgin rainforests to create yet more farmland so more folks can capitalize on this windfall (an area the size of Rhode Island was cleared in the Amazon in the second half of 2007 for this very purpose!!); the US continues to subsidize the growing of these biofuel crops thereby artificially deflating the cost of this "fuel" when compared to alternative, renewable and clean fuels, thus delaying and suppressing investments in renewable energy research and installations. CBS reports that there have been food riots in Bangladesh, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal. And most recently Haiti where a UN soldier was shot and killed trying to deliver food! (check out New Era of Hunger on www.cbsnews.com).

When all is accounted for, including the loss of world forests, the increased use of fertilizer, the run up in food prices, the civil violence and unrest around the world spurred on by long lines and short supplies, the social injustice (the poor around the world now spend 75% of their income on food alone), the diversion from areas of real energy advancement, biofuels become a culprit, not a savior.

We must limit their development and use and devote our land and our financial resources to those areas that can provide real solutions.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hitting close to home

The climate change crisis just came home to roost. There I was, buying my regular dozen bagels from Goldberg's on Monday when boom, the cashier says $9.xx. I can't even remember the exact price because the first number was so astonishing. The price of a dozen bagels (12 plus 1) at Goldberg's had been $8 for years. A small jump would be reasonable, even expected. But 15%! And then I remembered the sign on the refrigerator at the Giant the previous week, apologizing for the uncontrollable rise in prices for eggs and milk. (Paraphrased, the sign said: it's not our fault.) The reasons for these disparate price increases seem to be one and the same: what's happening to our land.

Droughts and floods, not just in one place, but around the world, have reduced wheat production over the past two years and raised wheat prices (futures at least) 100%. Add to these lower yielding harvests the additional impact of fewer fields growing wheat, replaced instead with acreage devoted to growing subsidized corn to meet ethanol marketplace demands, and you get an even smaller wheat, and food, harvest. Add a minus to a minus and you have to get more minus.

Yet if we would raise miles-per-gallon standards quickly enough, conserve meaningfully enough, and invest in alternative fuels (cellulosic biofuels) energetically enough, we could have our corn and eat it too. Meanwhile, we are instead tragically making it more expensive for people around the world to feed themselves and their families on these basic food crops. With wheat and corn getting more expensive, so do the foods that rely on them: eggs, milk and meat.

Even worse, studies coming out show that burning corn ethanol may be even more damaging to the environment than burning traditional oil, and if not worse, than no better either. So we may be creating world-wide food shortages without any environmental gain.

This is a complex issue that is coming home to roost. And we must be diligent consumers and continue to read and learn and advise our politicians. But if we thought climate change wouldn't hit us for decades, we must think again. The future has already begun.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

ownerless energy

Imagine if the world's power source was not located in any one state or nation; not owned, controlled or abused by any one company. Imagine an energy source that did not have to be dug up or blown off or piped across any expanse of land. Imagine an energy source that did not have to be transported in tankers, or trunks; whose distribution was managed by the forces of nature and not the whim of CEOs; whose harnessing was tamed by the creativity of the human mind and not the brute, crude force of destruction. Imagine an energy source that could not be blown up or blown down by terrorists or storms.

Imagine an energy source that did not make any one wealthy, but that made everyone rich.

Such is the nature of wind and solar energy - and who knows what other decentralized, readily available, on-site, safe, sustainable, no waste energy sources.

No wonder the energy companies are fighting it. There is no profit in the stuff of sun or wind. They can't hold or own or control the sun's rays or the wind's force. But there is profit in the machines that capture their energy; and in the green economy of manufaturing through recycling and the ever-expanding need for a service economy that can meet the infinite needs of the human spirit for care, companionship, and culture.

A new era of economics and spirit will have to dawn for us to save this planet, and ourselves. We will have to move from a disposable economy to a renewable economy; and from an economy of stuff to an economy of service. We can do this - and even more, we will be a better people, a happier people, if and when we do.

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