Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Have we really decided that progress is profit over people?

Waking up another day during summer drought and a heat wave in Namibia and I watch as our factories spew waste and we all drive singly into the city with our cars sputtering smoke in the air.

We are all complaining. Desperate, for rain. But most of us don't realise that we are the cause of all this, and are continuously making our situation worse. Our development plan is meant to be sustainable but it continues to be a copy-and-paste approach from western paradigms of development. Our air conditioning causes the climate to become hotter, and in turn we put the air conditioning on higher.

We, as humanity have come to a point where our destruction has caused suffering onto ourselves.

Naomi Klein, in her book "This Changes Everything", puts it like this "And we tell ourselves all kinds of similarly implausible no-consequences stories all the time, about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed we are always surprised when it works out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared and the soil needs even more inputs (like phosphate) to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militas and then wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs oversees, destroy worker protections, hollow out local economies, then wonder why people can't afford to shop as much as they used to. We offer those failed shoppers subprime mortgages instead of steady jobs and then wonder why noone foresaw that a system built on bad debts would collapse."

And so the vicious cycle continues, into the Global South.Yet, what about so many other ways we could be living. What about the better life we could be living, without ruining the conditions we live in.

Why do we live in a world where we choose profit over people? How can we say Namibia is progressing when I see more and more men on the side of the street desperate for work, and more and more fancy Land Cruisers and Prados on the street electronically closing their windows as they come to a stop sign, not wanting to face the sadness of the desperately unemployed and hungry. Off the Prados go home to their high walls and big screen TVs where they don't know their neighbours and spend their time in a virtual world that is causing them depression, anxiety and loneliness. A world where the connection they have is with their smart phones. Smart phones that were built off the bloody backs of desperate people waging war in countries like Congo. What progress is this? Why are we choosing this path - and why are we choosing this path when we know that it will probably kill us in our lifetimes, or at best, our children's lifetimes?

And to think of the rapidly developing nations who are following the god of economic growth, while paying lip service at the major climate conferences. Like Klein says, the victims of this are real people - the workers who lose their factory jobs in Juarez and Windsor; the workers who get the factory jobs in Shenzen and Dhaka, jobs that are by this point so degraded that some employers install nets along the perimeters of roofs to catch employees when they jump. Toddlers mouthing lead-laden toys, the Walmart employee expected to work over the American holiday just to be trampled by a stampede of frenzied customers, while not earning a living wage. And the Chinese villagers whos' water is contaminated by one of those coal plants we all use as our excuse of inaction.

Venezuelan political scientist Edgargo Lander said quite aptly "The total failure of climate negotiation serves to highlight the extent to which we now live in a post-democratic society. The interests of financial capital and the oil industry are much more important than the democratic will of people around the world. In the global neoliberal society profit is more important than life."

Klein in her book says that to avoid carnage there needs to be radical and immediate de-growth strategies. Now, especially to us still trying to "develop", this sounds unfair and apocalyptic - as if reducing emissions requires massive economic crises and human suffering. But that seems so only because we have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human and ecological consequences, while failing to place value on those that most of us cherish above all - a decent standard of living, a measure of future security, and our relationships with one another. We are permanently faced with advertisements giving us fantasies displayed as attainable realities, but at the cost of hyper consumption and worse problems in the nations where people live this charade of a Fake Empire than in those where we are considered poor.

Lets look at some of our sectors:

Generally, those sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit - the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, non profits should expand their share of the overall economic activity. Prosperity without Growth, by Tim Jackson says that "in the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask teachers to teach bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour?"

When we start delving into the depths of the fossil fuel industry excusing the boiling of the climate because the alternatives are just not feasible. So instead we dig deeper and dirtier, conducting the business of mountain top coal, fracking, tar sands, and horizon drilling. All the while renewable energy isn't only in our reach, it is, quite frankly, desirable. Plenty of reports and publications that show various countries in the world being capable of going 60% by 2030 in US, 100% in Australia in next ten years, why still the dependence on oil, fracking, mountain top coal? And for those of us pushing for nuclear power and advocating that it is carbon free - vast amounts of fossil fuels must be burned to mine, transport and enrich uranium!

Lets look at food - its often claimed that the Green Revolution saved the world from hunger. But the problem is, that even with the Green Revolution, starvation continues, particularly in India where it was the most intense. Climate-smart, conservation agriculture or agroecelogical projects can work because they are characterised not by expensive fertilizer from Yara and proprietary seeds from Monsanto, but knowledge developed and shared by subsistence farmers freely and equitably. When we take our fish, for instance in Africa and compare artisanal to industrial fisheries. Every part of the equation, whether its capital investment, employment creation along the value chain, and social positives, come out better with artisanal - yet we still push for export-led large scale industrial fisheries in our economic development in coastal countries of Africa.

The emergence of positive, practical and concrete alternatives to dirty development that do not ask people to choose between higher living standards and toxic extraction do exist. And there are alternative models of development that do not require massive wealth stratification, tragic cultural losses, or ecological devastation. Movements in our Global South are fighting hard for these alternative development models - policies that would bring power to a larger amount of people through decentralised renewable energy and revolutionized urban transport so that public transit is much more desirable than private cars. We just need to ask the right questions - what is important to us? What is important to me? What do I want Namibia, and Africa, and indeed the world, to really look like? And I am sure most of us, probably 99% of us would say, not like this.

So how do we stop and reroute the powerful economic wheel from turning, especially when a number of very powerful individuals, and indeed many of us, think we depend on GDP growth and dirty energy only for our wellbeing. Well, lets look at an example of a large scale social change that happened because a number of people were being treated in a grotesque manner, even though it brought economic returns that were unmeasureable to those in power. The slave trade. Chris Hayes wrote an essay comparing climate change to the abolition of slavery. At the time when the slave trade was being abolished slave labour was worth, in today's terms, 10 trillion USD. This is roughly the same value of the amount of carbon reserves still in the ground. If we have chosen society over profit before for a socially just cause, then there should be no reason why we shouldn't do this again. Especially when the entire human race is now at stake.

[Watch this space for some work on For Progress Namibia - a project some of us are embarking on to look at this very different alternative development model for Namibia.] 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resources are running out and so is the time! A (very late) response to a Wall Street Journal Article.

In April 2014, Himanshu Shekhar, Roy Cohen and I wrote a response to the article written by Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal. The response was sent to and fro across continents, but then life happened (to all of us) and unfortunately the response was never shaped, finalised, and sent off. In the spirit that late is better than never, I have decided to at least publish our response here: 

This article is a direct response to the article “The World’s Resources are not running out” by Mr. Matt Ridley and published online on the Wall Street Journal (dated April 25, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304279904579517862612287156). The first half of this response aims to highlight the conceptual flaws in arguments presented by Mr. Ridley while the second half responds more empirically (to various points raised by Mr. Ridley).

Overall, Mr. Ridley’s arguments focus on the notion of technological advancement as the solution for resource scarcity, without discussing the merits and demerits of these “solutions”. This is a very partial and exclusive point of view, which can only be assumed by privileged individuals. According to advocates like Mr. Ridley, advancement in technology will provide alternatives before we run out of present resources. However, this approach ignores the greater processes that inform technological development.

The way our system currently runs, technological development meets the needs of the market. These are dictated solely by profit: investors put their money in technologies that, in their opinion, could scale up and have great returns on investment. Investments in eco-friendly technologies exist but--in the current system--no “green” technology can hope to have the same success as e.g. WhatsApp, a texting app for mobile phones that was purchased for 16 billion USD by Facebook.

Another systemic problem is that the initial cost of investment rises with the increasing sophistication of technology. A self-proclaimed rational optimist, Mr. Ridley fails to see how corporate-patented technologies are used to centralize production. In the agricultural sector, for instance, four firms control more than 85% of beef production in the USA. Small farmers are marginalized and systematically exploited by these corporations (one only has to go to various case studies in Africa to see how this has corroded small scale farming). Many poor countries are forced to be the food basket of the world while the western world keeps more lucrative and remunerative areas such as the service sector for itself. Imbalances in trade and in access to technology further deepen the gap between rich and poor. Technology itself is not “good” or “bad”: it is oblivious when it is being used to aggravate social inequality as well as the climate crisis.

Like many people who share his point of view, Mr. Ridley cites rising efficiency in production as an example for the promise of technology. But it is a biased perspective, which leaves out two other important factors: (1) imports that increase the global footprint (pollution); and (2) the rise in affluence, which increases per capita consumption.

Mr. Ridley further talks about failure of predictions made in the renowned book “Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome, which — according to Ridley — failed when it predicted that resources will run out by now. But in fact, what the book failed to predict is the widening gap in resource consumption between rich and poor. This gap has been a blessing in disguise, to some extent, in ecological terms, but it indicates that more than half of the people in the world cannot meet their basic needs. In countries such as China, which witnessed the arrival of a strong middle class, the overall consumption has observed multi-fold increase putting extreme pressure on resources. The writers of Limits of Growth foresaw a trend in many of their projections. Their book sparked a revolution in how we value progress, and an awareness of the climate crisis, which Mr. Ridley wants to peg as a purely technological question. But the reality is much more complicated: the values that inform technological development determine what kind of world we are creating with the tools of progress.

Indeed we are hitting resource limits and planetary boundaries as we speak. Ecosystems are collapsing. The global water cycle is disrupted due to massive deforestation in the Amazon forest, which now releases more carbon than it soaks up. The acidifying oceans risk ending life as we know it. At what cost is our system currently operating? Developing economies are aiming for the same unsustainable goal as the developed world – industrializing by logging huge forests for timber, rather than using them for ecotourism or protecting them for the communities who depend on them for their livelihood. Two billion people are starving, with another billion people on the verge of starving – and one billion people are obese. Mr. Ridley’s so-called rational optimism does not account for these statistics.

Furthermore, the British member of the House of Lords talks about pessimists and optimists of climate change. Optimists hope for technological change that would result in the use of lower-carbon energy. However, climate negotiations show us that we are nowhere near. Climate activists  and other sustainability actors are pushing for renewable energy, but oil giants still yield more power than governments. The 2008 financial crisis had Exxon, Shell, Chevron reduce their US workforce by 11,400 workers, but — on the backend — pocketed 4 billion a year in tax subsidies. Globally, subsidies to the fossil fuel industry top 550 billion USD every year and are at least 12 times any subsidies given to energy efficiency and renewable energy. In 2011 Exxon made 5 million USD profit every hour but paid lower taxes than the average American worker.  This is not exactly a conducive enabling environment for more informed technologies.

Ecologists in this sense are not pessimists. They are realists who are pushing for redefining our approach to the entire system so that we do not chase endless growth at our own peril – but instead reduce inequality and work towards the well-being of humans, as well as the ecological health of our planet on which we rely for our own survival.

We have no doubt that innovation is part of the solution. Technology is part of the solution. But where Mr. Ridley fails is in seeing what innovation and technology serve. His narrative for progress is imbued with old fashioned ideas about increased productivity — the same ideas that have brought about the ecological crisis that we are experiencing. But innovation and technology can only help us get out of this crisis if we use them to solve our real, urgent problems — finite resources, unequal distribution and - yes - the climate crisis. It will not magically dissolve.

Resources are running out despite advancement in technology. Access and affordability to technology are as important as the tools we develop. Unless every single human being has sufficient access to basic resources, the pressure on the resources will keep on mounting. Any discussion on resource exploitation without considering the time needed for their replenishment and their impacts on the environment is nothing short of suicidal for the sustenance of the human race. Indeed, present accounting systems and the financial systems are not supportive of a sustainable human society. Our system, by design, erodes into our resources. A redefinition of our value system would help steer innovation towards a more just and equal society, one that lives in harmony within the larger system.  We hope that the leaders, policy makers and people in general will pay heed to Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “There is enough for everyone’s need but not for anyone’s greed”.