Carbon Neutral and Sustainable Are Simply Not Enough
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This week, there were thousands of academics, diplomats, lobbyists and pundits converging on New York for the United Nations emergency Climate Summit. Unfortunately, they were all arguing about the wrong topic. As a pseudo Eco-Economist, I feel compelled to shout:
“It’s the Economy Stupid!—Not the Environment.”
I know. I plagiarized the title. But it cuts straight to the point. That’s not in vogue anymore. We’re supposed to be politically correct so as not to offend anybody. We tend to defer to so called experts while we snack on digestible sound bites, lacking in substance.
Leading up to the UN Climate Summit, Burger King found itself in the cross hairs as the latest scape goat in this chronically superficial assault on unsustainability. The headlines read: “Burger King’s plan to merge with doughnut chain Tim Horton’s in Canada may be a bad sign for Southeast Asia’s rainforests.”
As if the merger changes anything with regard to their use of palm oil or the impact the two companies are already having independently on the environment.
We point fingers at Burger King because it means we get to side-step our own personal responsibility in the matter. Politicians and economists like to point the finger at Burger King because they don’t have to deal with the deeper systemic problems that underlie the broader issues—for which they are culpable. Environmentalists like to point the finger at Burger King because they’re a big target and the headlines bring in big donations.
There’s a lot of snack-talk today about climate change, environmental footprints, deforestation, sustainability and inequality. But, I prefer simple straight-forward talk. It reveals the true nature of things, more than the fancy-speak of talking heads.
I find it utterly dumbfounding, not to mention infuriating, that so many supposedly great minds have perpetuated the climate change and sustainability debate and yet there is still no honest statement of the problem and therefore, no hope of a clear solution. This is a classic example of diagnosing a symptom and not its cause.
I am the founder of an organization called InfiniteEARTH. We save rainforests. Specifically, we save peat swamp forests on the island of Borneo in Indonesia, one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet and home to the dwindling population of endangered orangutans. After seven years of hard work, we won the right to protect and manage nearly 65,000 hectares (162,500 acres) of Indonesian rainforest, all of which was under imminent threat of slash and burn conversion to palm oil plantations. You could fit most of Singapore inside our forest reserve, called the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve.
From that description, you might make the forgivable assumption that I am an environmentalist. But, I am not. Truth is, I’m not sure what an environmentalist really is, but I don’t think I’m one of them. Not really. The reason we haven’t solved our environmental problems is because we have environmentalists working on solutions to what is fundamentally a systemic economic problem.
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I am many things. I’m an economist by education, an entrepreneur by default—since I am fatally allergic to the bureaucratic quagmire of politics, corporations or NGOs. I am an adventurer, a naturalist and most importantly a father.
But what I really am, if you peel back the labels, is an insatiable glutton, a financial fraud, an addict and a thief, to the extent that I steal from my children to fund my addictions. I am … just like you. It was the eventual realization of this long list of shortcomings, as a species, that led me to create InfiniteEARTH.
So, you see, InfiniteEARTH wasn’t created to save the rainforest in Borneo per se, even though that’s what we do. InfiniteEARTH’s Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve was meant to create a living, working example of how we can correct the underlying cause of a chronic economic problem, not put a band-aide on an environmental consequence. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it was created to provide restitution for an economic crime.
Our real problem is CREDIT. CHEAP, EASY CREDIT. Our current extractive economic model is based on credit. And we like it that way because it subsidizes our value meals at Burger King, the price of which accounts only for the cost of cutting down the forest for palm oil and pasture land, not for the environmental costs of replacing what was lost. But with this purely extractive cost model, we have all conscripted our children into debt slavery.
As with everything else about our modern global economy, we’ve kicked the can down the road, leaving our children to pay for our unsustainable lifestyles. That has to stop—immediately. But, I don’t have any illusions that it will. We are biologically programed to consume—gluttonously—a genetic leftover from thousands of years of food scarcity prior to the agricultural revolution. Our brains have not yet caught up to the reality that we do not have to gorge ourselves in fear of not knowing when the next meal is coming. Unfortunately, by the time our brain’s biology adapts to this fact, we’ll have depleted the Earth’s resources and broad scarcity will be the norm once again.
No amount of social conditioning alone will overcome this biological predisposition quickly enough to save us from the veritable cliff we’re headed for. So, at the very least, we have to start paying for the replacement costs of what we consume. That is the most profound reality of our time.
Therefore, the conversation we need to be having, post haste, is how we embed environmental replacement costs into everything we consume, so that we don’t leave our children environmentally bankrupt and enslaved.
This is not a political issue or an environmental issue and it’s not about Burger King or Tim Horton’s. This is undoubtedly an economic issue; but even further to its core, this is a moral issue.
We are living in a period of abundance and mass consumption unequaled in the course of human history. We currently consume at a rate of 1.5 times the Earth’s capacity to absorb our waste and regenerate the resources we’ve consumed. By the year 2050, when our population reaches 9 billion people, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support our insatiable demand for natural resources.
In a shameful frenzy to satisfy our insatiable appetite for mass consumerism, we are climbing up the backs of our children and short selling their futures. Our legacy and their inheritance is that we have left them environmentally bankrupt and financially enslaved.
The ongoing financial crisis and the chronic economic bubbles that precede them, are a result of the broader reality that everything we consume is highly leveraged, with the real total cost of ownership being far greater than its current price reflects. By paying only for the extraction costs of our non-renewable natural resources and not their full replacement costs, we are borrowing (stealing) from our children’s futures to subsidize the cost of the goods and services we consume today.
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Just since the inception of InfiniteEARTH’s Rimba Raya project some six years ago, the world has lost 90 million hectares (220 million acres) of tropical bio-diverse forest, an area three times the size of Norway, slashed and burned and replaced with palm oil plantations for the production of packaged cakes, cookies, candy and crackers or cleared for cattle grazing for the production of fast food hamburgers.
For these frivolous things we have stolen from our children’s futures and for the first time in modern history we have condemned the next generation to a lower standard of living than our own.
Because of this simple fact, our extractive economic model simply doesn’t work anymore. Our environmental problems are the result of a chronic underlying economic ailment.
Launching clever campaigns to convince people to reduce, recycle, reuse, and repurpose is terrific, but it alone won’t solve the problem when half the planet is just beginning to consume and the population is set to double in span of my children’s lifetime. Tying ourselves to trees and standing in front of the bulldozers makes great news and calls attention to the problem, but does nothing to address the underlying causes. We need to be discussing the causal effect that our extractive economic model has on our unsustainable consumptive behavior.
Our current extractive economic model has existed since the dawn of mankind. We extract from nature’s bounty and we consume. Nature replaces what we consume. And the cycle continues. For some 10,000 years of human history, this model has worked. Nature’s incredible abundance and productivity always managed to out-produce what the world’s population consumed.
And then came the Industrial Revolution. That spurred an increase in consumption levels, the standard of living and a dramatic rise in global population. Sometime in the early years of the nineteenth century, the world’s population reached 1 billion.
My grandmother was born a century later in 1917, in the heartland of America. She is still alive today and at age of 97, she has seen the world’s population increase four-fold—all in the span of one person’s lifetime. My grandma’s family was poor—like most people in that era. Their standard of living was the rule, not the exception. When she was a child, my grandma was lucky to have one pair of shoes and one winter coat. She walked six miles to school—yes, in the snow and uphill both ways. She shared a single bed with 3 other siblings. Her family heated their modest home (that her father built himself) with the cast iron stove in the kitchen.
Today, she still lives modestly and well within her means. She is, after all, a product of the Great Depression and WWII. After a lifetime of never making more than $4 an hour at a department store and raising five kids, my grandma and grandpa somehow miraculously retired with a comfortable amount of savings that defies the laws of finance and is worthy of a Harvard Business School case study. She has outlived my grandpa by more than a decade and now lives alone. Her house is paid for and she lives on an $800/month social security check. Even at that, she still manages to put some of it aside for a rainy day. That kind discipline has never been seen in any generation since.
Her lifestyle today, however, far exceeds that of even the wealthiest people of her childhood. Today, she lives in Florida, has a car and a house three times the size of the one she grew up in. She has a closet full of clothes, a dishwasher, a microwave, central heat and air-conditioning. She goes out to eat—often. She still travels—by airplane. She spoils her great-grandchildren with too many Birthday and Christmas gifts.
My grandma is not alone. The other seven and a half billion people with whom she now shares this fragile planet, have the same things, many have more, and the rest want what she has. And that means there are going to be a lot more Burger Kings and Tim Horton’s, not because they’re evil, but because we consumers keep craving what they’re offering, all the while passing the bill to our children.
To make matters worse, instead of addressing how we embed environmental replacements in the cost of everything we consume, environmentalists have only exacerbated the problem by focusing on corporations and giving the consumer a free pass. To be fair, that’s probably because we don’t donate to people who tell us we’re part of the problem. Or, maybe because they’re also consumers and that means confronting their own personal responsibility. Some of them even say that paying for environmental replacements is akin to a sin tax, which means it’s better to do nothing I guess. We conveniently carry out this endless debate inside a house of mirrors, where blame is deflected in a dozen different false directions.
We all really need to start being honest with ourselves and with our children.
My daughter’s birthday is coming up soon. She’ll be twelve. I’d like not to feel like a hypocrite when I give her the present I bought for her, knowing that I bought it on credit that she will have to repay. I’d like to be able to tell her that she and her little brother will have a better standard of living than I had, that things are getting better, not worse. I’d like to be able to say I did everything I could to make sure that’s true. But I can’t. Today, I’m still a liar and a thief. And so are you. Today, I still steal from their piggybanks to pay for my cravings. And so do you. Today, things are not getting better. I hope that will change. But, for that to change, we have to change the narrative.
We have an economic problem that is causing irreparable damage to this planet and threatening the survival of mankind. One of the most efficient and most immediate ways to begin correcting that, is to start paying for the total replacement costs of the natural resources used in the things we consume, not just for their extraction costs.
It’s the Economy Stupid! Is there an economist in the house?
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By Karen Charman
When President Donald Trump visited California on September 14 and dismissed the state Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot's plea to recognize the role of climate change in the midst of the Golden State's worst and most dangerous recorded fire season to date, he gaslighted the tens of millions of West Coast residents suffering through the ordeal.
Foxes Guarding the Henhouse<p>Before he assumed power, Trump attacked regulations as unnecessary barriers to freedom and economic prosperity. Since taking office, he has targeted anything enacted by the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and taken steps to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement, the international effort to combat climate change. He has also staffed heads of key agencies with climate deniers of various stripes, forced out career public servants and created a hostile work environment for those who don't profess loyalty to his deregulatory agenda.</p><p>Like Trump himself, some of his cabinet choices displayed an audacious penchant for <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/09/27/us/donald-trump-taxes.html?action=click&module=Spotlight&pgtype=Homepage" target="_blank">self-dealing</a> and abusing their positions of authority. One example is Trump's first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who aggressively worked to overturn Obama's climate regulations, spent most of his time in <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trump-epa-head-steps-down-after-wave-of-ethics-management-scandals/2018/07/05/39f4251a-6813-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">private meetings</a> with fossil fuel and chemical company executives, sidelined career EPA staff and reconfigured independent scientific advisory boards to make them more supportive of the industries EPA is charged with regulating. Dubbed "<a href="https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-pruitt-leaves-20180705-story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials in U.S. history</a>," Pruitt resigned in disgrace after revelations about his multiple brazen abuses, including using the agency as his personal concierge service and piggy bank.</p><p>Pruitt's deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/andrew-wheeler-acting-epa-administrator-former-number-two-before-scott-pruitt-resignation/" target="_blank">former coal industry lobbyist</a> and longtime Republican Washington insider, took over and has continued Trump's deregulatory agenda apace.</p><p>At the Department of Interior (DOI), a sprawling agency that oversees 75 percent of the country's public federal lands and includes the U.S. Geological Survey, which is tasked with evaluating natural hazards that threaten life and the health of our ecosystems, Trump installed another flamboyant anti-environmentalist to head the agency. Like Pruitt, Trump's first Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke aggressively attacked environmental regulations, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/05/07/epa-dismisses-half-of-its-scientific-advisers-on-key-board-citing-clean-break-with-obama-administration/" target="_blank">ditched more than 200 advisory panels</a>, and pushed to open up vast swaths of public land to oil and gas drilling. Described by one environmental group as "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/interior-secretary-zinke-resigns-amid-investigations/2018/12/15/481f9104-0077-11e9-ad40-cdfd0e0dd65a_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation's history</a>," Zinke was forced out after numerous highly publicized conflict-of-interest scandals.</p><p>The DOI is now run by Zinke's deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, another longtime Republican Washington insider and former oil industry lobbyist who has also been the subject of <a href="https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/this-is-still-happening-david-bernhardt-trump-lincoln.html" target="_blank">several government ethics complaints</a> for various violations favoring polluting industries.</p><p>More recently, longtime climate change denier David Legates, a climatologist at the University of Delaware previously <a href="https://insideclimatenews.org/news/19032015/u-delaware-refuses-disclose-funding-sources-its-climate-contrarian" target="_blank">funded by fossil fuel interests</a>, was hired for a <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/12/912301325/longtime-climate-science-denier-hired-at-noaa" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">top job</a> advancing weather modeling and prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 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By Jan Ellen Spiegel
It wasn't so long ago that the issue of climate change was poised to play a huge – possibly even a decisive – role in the 2020 election, especially in the race for control of the U.S. Senate. Many people supporting Democratic candidates saw a possible Democratic majority as a hedge against a potential Trump re-election … a way to plug the firehose spray of more than 100 environmental regulation rollbacks and new anti-climate initiatives by the administration over its first term.
Potential Climate Voters<p>In a September 1 memo on climate and the election, Andrew Baumann, vice president of the consultants Global Strategy Group, wrote: "Few issues have seen as dramatic a shift in public opinion as climate change has over the last few years. Only marriage equality and the recent shift in views around racial justice outpace the rapid growth in the salience of climate change as an issue."</p><p>Calling it a "winning political issue" the memo says: "First, it is clearly a motivator for both younger and Latinx voters. Second, it has the power to move swing voters, particularly center-right white women."</p><p>Baumann points to a finding that when a group of such women were asked generic ballot questions, Democrats trailed by nine percentage points. But when the question was revised as a choice between:</p><p>"A Democrat who supports taking strong government action to combat climate change.<br>A Republican who opposes taking strong government action to combat climate change."</p><p>… the result was a 29 percentage point shift, putting Democrats ahead by 20 percentage points among that same group.</p><p>"I think it is playing a role," says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, a longtime outspoken climate activist who is on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and also on the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. If Democrats win back the Senate, he stands to play an even more pivotal climate role as part of the majority. He is not up for re-election this year.</p><p><span></span>"I think from the Democratic side it's playing a role in generating enthusiasm – particularly making younger voters feel that they have a real stake in this election. On the Republican side, I think things have moved enough that candidates can no longer get away with simply scoffing about climate change."</p>
Climate a Top Concern for Youths, Latinx<p>So who's still thinking climate? Mostly young voters – 18 to 25 or 29 and Latinx voters.</p><p>Climate and the environment are the top concern among young voters, just above racism and healthcare according to <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">CIRCLE</a>, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which focuses on the political life of young people in the U.S. For Latinx youth, it drops a bit but remains in the top three.</p><p>The issues young people care about have an impact on how they volunteer their time, says Kristian Lundberg, an associate researcher at CIRCLE. He says that's played out most notably through the Sunrise Movement, which focuses on climate change and the environment along with other key activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives.</p><p>He points to polling this summer that showed that 83% of 18-to-29-year-olds felt they had the power to change things. "Young people feel much more empowerment than in 2016 and 2018," Lundberg says. "It's intentional these movements are carving out space for young people. It's an important strategy."</p><p>In positions of power in these organizations, young people have developed peer-to-peer outreach on activism. And Lundberg says young people have made the leap that connects activism to voting as a lever for change. "In the past in very close races, young people breaking heavily have provided the margin of victory," he says.</p><p>CIRCLE is highlighting 10 U.S. Senate races as ones in which young voters can be decisive. Several of them have notable climate or environmental components – most prominently the Colorado and Montana races.</p><p>The Republican incumbents in each state – Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana – are running against a popular Democratic governor – John Hickenlooper in Colorado, now out of office — and Steve Bullock, still the governor of Montana. Both governors have had to balance their state's fossil fuel economic interests with supporting climate change solutions.</p>
Tying Climate Change to the Economy<p>In August, Data for Progress, a progressive research think tank, released polling on climate change – including in the battleground Senate elections in Arizona, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina – showing voters back a Senate candidate supporting strong climate action.</p><blockquote>Climate change as 'mobilizing issue … key persuasion issue.'<br></blockquote><p>It also showed that linking climate change to the economy may be key. That means talking about clean energy and jobs together, says Danielle Deiseroth, climate data analyst for <a href="https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/poll-young-people-believe-they-can-lead-change-unprecedented-election-cycle" target="_blank">Data for Progress</a>. She says that in addition to jobs, climate change issues include climate justice and economic equality – both of heightened interest because of fallout from western wildfires.</p><p>"Climate change, we've observed over the last year or so, is a key mobilizing issue and a key persuasion issue," she says. "Climate issues can only grow support for Democratic candidates.</p><p>"I think it's pretty naive to say climate is the key issue for voters. For a lot of voters it really exemplifies so many things that are wrong with the Trump presidency," Deiseroth says.</p><p>So a factor among others. Helpful, but pivotal only in narrow circumstances.</p><p>At the League of Conservations Voters, a progressive environmentalist organization putting a lot of money and effort into the 2020 races, Senior Director of Political Affairs Craig Auster says: "I'll push back that climate change doesn't matter or isn't registering."</p><p>"It's still showing up in several Senate races. It's been playing a role in almost all of them."</p><p>Candidates are still talking about it, he says, pointing to Colorado, Montana, Iowa, and other states where ads are addressing climate and environmental issues. That shows the candidates believe their opponent is vulnerable on the issue or they're strong on it, he says.</p><p>Like others, Auster calls climate a motivator.</p><p>"Climate change matters," he says. "We have proof point after proof point about what's happening, whether it's a hurricane, a superstorm, derechos in Iowa, or wildfires out west.</p><p>"Pre-COVID it was top tier for Democratic voters along with healthcare. If COVID didn't happen I think climate would be a big deal."</p>
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