Dry Land, Dry Sentiment: Remembering Traditional Patterns in Times of Drought

Photo source: World Bank

Pastoralists in Kenya are suffering huge losses as livestock herds are decimated by water shortages. (Photo source: World Bank)

By guest blogger: Brendan Buzzard

In parts of East Africa, it has not rained in over a year and the soil drifts away without the roots of grass to hold it. Dominic, a herder and Samburu scout working for a community wildlife conservation program on the eastern edge of Samburu district, understands this reality.

“I tried and tried to save my cows,” he explains as he squats down and brushes the dry sand with a twig. “I tried everything I could think of. During the day, the animals were too weak to walk to water, so they would rest in the shade and I would try to find food. At night, we would walk slowly, sometimes the whole night, to get to water. But they died one by one. The last one I had to leave alone in the bush because I did not have food. She was very weak.”

For a family that depends on livestock, leaving an animal to die is a difficult choice. The thin bodies of cattle that dot the rangelands of northern Kenya are more than sun-baked skin draped over empty skeletons; they represent years and years of mutual respect, careful nurturing, and companionship, a partnership between the pastoralists that inhabit this land and the animals they lead to food and water. In this part of Kenya, livestock have formed the relationship between people and the land for over 4,000 years. The current drought is challenging this livelihood’s future.

Dominic’s story is echoed throughout the various communities of these rangelands, a reality that leads governments, organizations, and the wider public to view pastoralism as an unsuccessful livelihood whose chance in history has faded. Last week, as Kenyan national television showed a clip of the animal carcasses littering this northern landscape, a woman working as a cook in urban Nairobi expressed a common sentiment:

Those people never want to sell their cows. They just stay with them until they die and they have nothing left. I don’t understand why they do not just move to town and find real work when they know a drought is coming.

Yet here, in a land where the thorny branches of acacia trees knock together with the breeze, culture, livelihood, and land are intricately woven together. In the midday sun, the words of an older Samburu woman, a member of a women’s group of the Gir Gir Group Ranch that promotes the sale of traditional jewelry, illustrate these links clearly:

“The cows are like my children, and I went to help my son to try and feed them and give them water. We could not do it, they were very weak, and last night the last one died,” she says as she adjusts the rolled up cowhide she is carrying and shades her eyes with her hand. “We could not just leave them without trying, but it was too hard. We did not have any water. The cows are what we know.”

A belief is circling among governments and organizations that pastoralists should find other ways of living, more productive methods of using the land on which they live. Supplements to livelihoods can be found—jewelry making is one example—yet withdrawing livestock from the land removes a vital ecological component that has shaped the ecology of place as pastoralists moved across it. It may be dangerous to forget these traditional patterns.

“In the past, we used to move long distances,” explains Sammy, another scout from the Samburu conservancy, as it starts to get dark and the stars blink down from a clear sky. “We used to cooperate with other communities to save grass and water in times when we needed it. Now people are settled, there are boreholes with water and schools and clinics and shops. People are staying in one place and there is no buffer of grass to move to when it is dry.”

Understanding traditional patterns and finding ways to merge them into development activities is vital for the integrity of local cultures that grew from the husbandry of livestock. But it is also important for local ecological systems. The fact that the pastoral lands are co-inhabited by wildlife—Kenya’s main economic asset—illustrates the importance of these rangelands and the pastoral livelihood that manages them.

“Do you really think that these animals like elephants and gazelles would be here after all these years if the Samburu did not tolerate and respect them?” Sammy asks. Though he understands this fact, he does not preach that all Samburu care about wildlife like he does. “It is true, many animals are being killed both by poachers and people that get a hold of small arms. Some are from the community. They are also dying from the lack of grass or water. But with the conservancy we are trying to change this. Being pastoralists at least gives us a chance to protect Kenya’s wildlife.”

As governments, organizations and communities make decisions about the future of similar arid landscapes throughout the world, they may do well to consider traditional patterns. Land and people have shaped each other and, as with wildlife in Kenya’s case, sometimes the patterns of the past hold the key to a healthy economic future.

Brendan Buzzard is a contributor to Nourishing the Planet. A writer and conservationist, he works and travels widely while focusing on the link between human prosperity and landscape integrity. He has a degree in Geography and Environment from Prescott College.

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Embracing the Limits

Find the boundary

Find the boundary

In several recent posts I made reference to Herman Daly’s insight that ours is a “full world,” where human numbers and activities have grown to such an extent that our planet’s natural systems are struggling to support them. More evidence of this came last week in a new study of “planetary boundaries”—natural, global-level thresholds that humans should not cross for fear of environmental catastrophe. Atmospheric carbon concentrations, for example, should not exceed 350 parts per million because of the grave risk of destabilizing the planet’s climate.  

The new study identifies nine areas for which it believes thresholds should be set: climate change, biodiversity loss, changes in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, changes in land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. It proposes boundaries for seven of the nine: cropland, for example, should be limited to 15 percent of the world’s ice-free land surface. Notably, the study shows that three of these thresholds have already been crossed: climate change, biodiversity loss, and changes to the nitrogen cycle.   

The study is the latest in a long series of cautionary signals to humanity, from the  Limits to Growth study of the 1970s to the Ecological Footprint, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and other more recent initiatives. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the problems they warn of are already emerging. In August, the International Energy Agency warned that oil production will peak within a decade—much sooner than predicted by national governments and an unusually sober assessment from the normally conservative IEA. Countries in the Middle East and Asia have attempted to lease farmland in Africa, fearing that future land shortages and insufficient food supplies could become the norm for them. And the Chicago Mercantile Exchange predicted in July that increasingly scarce water will one day be traded as a commodity, just as pork bellies and wheat are today.    

What to do in the face of the latest storm warnings? The comprehensive, global nature of the threats suggests that mere tweaks to business as usual cannot change humanity’s course to the extent needed. The world’s societies need to wrap their collective minds around new ways of operating—which makes this historical moment as exciting as it is sobering. New ideas, such as the notion that economies may not have to grow perpetually, for decades the province of academics, are now being considered by governments—see, for example, the UK’s Prosperity without Growth. Also from the UK comes the Happy Planet Index, which suggests that the goals of our economies need to be rethought to focus on wellbeing, rather than ever-increasing incomes per person.  

Dematerializing our economies, so that they deliver what people need using progressively fewer resources, is a radical shift in the way economies are organized that is being pushed by the Wuppertal Institute, the World Resources Forum, and even the government of Japan. And some of the boldest thinkers take seriously the idea that we can banish poverty using tools like microfinance, cell phones adapted to serve the poor (including some of their banking needs), and trade rules that give poor nations access to wealthy country markets. 

The “planetary boundaries” study is the latest contribution to a new global consciousness that will result in the birth of a new world. Whether it will be born in violence, chaotic upheaval, and mass suffering, or in a thoughtful remaking of the world’s economies, is the great question for our civilization this century.

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Don’t Squeeze the Old Growth Forest

Yesterday, the Washington Post drew attention to a battle being waged to shift how we wipe our behinds. Should we use soft, cushiony toilet paper made from virgin wood fiber (a.k.a., trees), or should we use somewhat rougher tissue made from recycled fibers?

In one corner, you have environmentalists and companies that make recycled toilet paper rallying for the recycled fibers. (Full disclosure: I’m in that corner.) In the other, you have the majority of toilet paper companies and a large percentage of consumers.

Not surprisingly, the latter companies claim that they are not in control of what consumers want, but are just reacting to demand. The question, of course, is where did this demand come from in the first place? For most of our history, we didn’t use toilet paper at all. It was only in 1890 that this luxury item started to be adopted. Before then, people simply conscripted other papers or fibers to do the job.

But upscale toilet paper can be sold at upscale prices. Could today’s consumer demand be the result of decades of marketing that promoted the use of softer tissue? “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” or Cotonelle’s “Be Kind to Your Behind” campaigns are just some of the memorable ads through the years. Now, decades later, consumers have internalized the feeling that they want to use softer tissues.

So, how do we change that?

Already, Greenpeace has spent four-and-a-half years putting pressure on Kimberly-Clark, the manufacturer of Kleenex and Cotonelle and one of the world’s largest toilet paper producer. The good news is that Greenpeace has declared victory (well, a partial victory anyway) and Kimberly-Clark will increase its use of recycled paper content and/or sustainably harvested wood to 40 percent by 2011. So one round goes to environmentalists (just don’t ask how many rounds have already been fought).

But that’s just 40 percent—and not all from recycled content. How will environmentalists, the proxy fighters for the forests, win in the end?

Here’s where a little-known term called “choice-editing” comes into play.

As the Post article mentions, when you’re at a restaurant, the office, or a public building, most likely you’re using the rough stuff. No choice. It’s there, you need some, you use it.

But in grocery and convenience stores, the fancy brands beckon and are placed preferentially on shelves. You “indulge” in softness. You choose to be kind to your behind, because, after all, only weird people would choose not to be.

So, targeting the consumer will probably fail (except for the eco-conscious segment). And while the paper companies will yield to some degree to avoid massive negative publicity, they’re not going to stop selling a more profitable product.

Unless, of course, it becomes less profitable.

Solution: make the plush stuff less attractive. One possible way is to put a 10–25 percent tax on luxury toilet paper. Then, use that money to help better manage national forests so that, instead of catching fire, they can serve as reserves of biodiversity, carbon, and other resources for the products we really need.

As one environmentalist pointed out in the Post article, “We don’t need old-growth forests…to wipe our behinds.” But until we teach people that, stop encouraging them through advertising, and put barriers in their way, that’s exactly what they’ll keep doing.

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Survey Says: Sharing Innovations for Sustainable Ways to Alleviate Hunger

An example of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) farming, an innovation being implemented in Madagascar and many other parts of the world to increase rice yields.

An example of System of Rice Intensification (SRI) farming, an innovation being implemented in Madagascar and many other parts of the world to increase rice yields.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to respond to our survey on different agricultural innovations. We’ve received some interesting, unique, and inspiring examples of innovations from around the world that are helping to nourish people, protect the environment, and improve livelihoods.

Here’s a sampling of what we’ve learned so far:

  • In Namibia, herders are combining their traditional knowledge with cutting-edge science, developing rangeland management plans that improve production and animal health, encourage the growth of perennial grasses, and increase “compatibility between land uses, including tourism, wildlife, and cropping.”
  • In Madagascar, Sustainable Rice Intensification, or SRI, is increasing rice yields though better management of plants, soil, water, and nutrients. It can reduce requirements for seeds and uses less water for irrigation and less artificial fertilizer. SRI plants are also more resistant to pests and diseases.
  • In Senegal, women and healthcare practitioners are using “micro-gardens” in cities like Dakar to improve nutrition.
  • In Uganda, slum dwellers are making biomass energy briquettes out of organic waste for cooking, instead of using expensive charcoal. This is helping to reduce deforestation and waste accumulation, while also helping people save money.
  • In Kenya, women’s groups are forming cooperatives and practicing organic gardening.

Survey ButtonIf you’d like to highlight other innovations, we encourage you to fill out our survey and add your knowledge to our growing library of great projects taking place around the world. Stay tuned for more information about these innovations, and others, as we gather more survey results!

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A Materials World

The future of resources: museum pieces?

The future of resources: museum pieces?

Here’s yet another sign that our age is one of global-level limits: last week, an event known as the World Resources Forum was held to bring together scientists, activists, and policymakers to consider strategies for reducing the world’s burgeoning appetite for resources. An answer to the famous World Economic Forum (the annual gathering of world business leaders in Davos, Switzerland), the WRF examines the underlying resource base that makes business possible.

As an WRF attendee, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the simple yet insightful observation by Herman Daly, one of the fathers of ecological economics, that we live in a “full world.” At the meeting, Friends of the Earth Europe and the Sustainable Europe Research Institute released a new report outlining the heavy resource use of modern economies. Among other findings: humans extract 50 percent more natural resources today than they did 30 years ago, or some 60 billion tons of raw materials per year. And, under a business-as-usual scenario, resource use could nearly double by 2030 compared with 2005. In addition, and not surprisingly, resource use is greater in wealthy than in poor countries: the average American uses 88 kilograms of resources per day and the average European 43 kilos, but the average Asian uses only 14 kilos and the average African 10 kilos.

Seemingly good news in the report is that we are becoming more efficient with the wood, metals, fuels, and other materials we extract. The global economy today needs 30 percent fewer resources to produce a unit of GDP than it did 30 years ago. But in truth, this is little cause for cheer: increased consumption due to population growth and growing consumption per person have more than offset those efficiency gains. The bottom line is that the global economy uses more resources today than it did 30 years ago, which translates into greater environmental damage.

Clearly, the relative decoupling of economies and resources achieved to date needs to be replaced with an absolute decoupling, so that efficiency increases are not unraveled by consumption increases. California may have some ideas: it has gained fame for setting in place policies that produced no growth in energy use over the past 30 years, despite increases in population—an absolute decoupling. This feat happened in large part because the state created an incentive structure for utilities that made conservation profitable, turning the conventional idea of a utility on its head.  

Can we turn whole economies on their heads? Can we imagine an economy where profit and prosperity go to those who use the least resources to deliver a product and a unit of GDP?  Attendees at the WRF have this vision. By using resource taxes, rewards for resource-efficient behavior, and incentives for comprehensive recycling, as well as by tapping resource efficiency opportunities within countries, such a world would indeed seem possible.

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Who Really Knows Why the Economy Grows?

Efficiency: it's not just trendy, it's indispensable. (2009 Honda Civic Hybrid)

Efficiency: it's not just trendy, it's indispensable. (2009 Honda Civic Hybrid)

Dumb question, you say. Of course economists know that an economy grows because, over time, workers get more productive (and there are more of them) and capital gets invested in new machinery and equipment that work better than the old stuff. Right?

 Well…sort of. Nobel economist Robert Solow owes part of his reputation to his studies analyzing the drivers of economic growth. This brilliant man, building on decades of earlier thinking by many other brilliant economists, labored long and hard to produce the work that won him the Nobel prize—which concluded that capital and labor accounted for…one-seventh of all economic growth. The mere 85 percent or so that remains, now called the Solow Residual (or total factor productivity or just “technological progress”), is not explained in conventional economic theory.

 But the authors of a new book think they have filled in this theoretical gap—and the implications are profound. Robert Ayres and Ed Ayres, whose book Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future (Wharton School Publishing) is due out in January, argue that economic growth is driven, not by just two factors, but by three: labor, capital, and energy—or more specifically, “the increasing thermodynamic efficiency with which energy and raw materials are converted into useful work.”

 In other words, roughly, economic growth depends to a very large extent on the services obtained from the energy the economy uses. Economic growth rates were low in the days before the Industrial Revolution because the total energy available to any economy was limited by the amount of sunlight captured by farmers’ fields, which supplied food for both people and draft animals. Except for a few windmills, that’s about all there was. Learning how to make machines that ran on coal changed all that by tapping a vast new source of energy.

 This insight into the role of energy in economic growth is not just of academic interest. One result is especially critical to modern society: When energy is abundant and cheap, as it has been for decades now in the industrialized world (in the form of readily extractable coal and oil), an economy can grow lickety-split even if its overall energy efficiency is very low. And ours is absurdly low: the payload efficiency of a car, for instance, is typically about 1 percent. However, when energy becomes scarce and expensive, unless service efficiencies rise sharply, in effect you strangle one of the key factors underlying economic growth.

 As it happens, many experts believe that we are entering a period of constraints on energy supplies, as evidenced by the prospects of peak oil and the growing suspicion that there is less coal readily available than we thought. This, and the imperative to address climate change, puts a premium both on shifting rapidly to renewable energy and on working very hard to get more efficient in our energy use—including wringing as much service as possible out of the fossil energy we must use during the transition. And in fact the second main thrust of Crossing the Energy Divide is how to do that. At least in the United States, there are staggering gains to be had relatively cheaply and quickly, especially from more widespread adoption of energy recycling.

 (Full disclosure: Ed Ayres is the former editor, now retired, of World Watch Magazine; Robert Ayres, a physics-trained economist, is his brother.)

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Worldwatch in The Nation

The September 21 edition of The Nation featured an interesting commentary by Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez, and Annie Shattuck, all of Food First, that was critical of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s support of agricultural development in Africa, and particularly of biotechnology projects.

Mark Suzman, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Gates Foundation, responded, mentioning a recent grant to the Worldwatch Institute for our Nourishing the Planet project as proof that the Foundation is concerned about environmental sustainability and agriculture. Patel et al. responded by congratulating Worldwatch for getting the grant, while criticizing Gates for giving money to a U.S.-based group, rather than African one.

We submitted our own response on the issue (below), but The Nation hasn’t posted it yet. Let us know what you think!

First, many thanks to The Nation and Food First for alerting readers to the need for increased funding in African agriculture. Investing in agriculture is the single most important way that countries can help alleviate hunger and poverty. And yet, investments in agricultural development by governments, international lenders, and foundations are at historic lows. As more decision makers and funders shift resources back toward agricultural development in the coming years, there is a gaping need for guidance.

Against this backdrop, the Worldwatch Institute is excited to have the opportunity to highlight stories of hope and success in African agriculture over the next two years through our Nourishing the Planet project.

One of the main goals of our work is to put a much-needed spotlight on farmer organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa, the very organizations and individuals that Mr. Patel, Mr. Holt-Gimenez, and Ms. Shattuck rightfully assert are essential to any meaningful discussion of sustainable agriculture in that region. The culmination of this project will be the report State of the World 2011, with a focus on hunger. We are working directly with farmer organizations and groups on the ground in Africa—as well as African journalists—to use this report to tell the yet-untold stories of triumph in this region.

You ask if the money might have been better spent supporting the dissemination of this proven knowledge within Africa. That is exactly what we hope to do with this project. Through Worldwatch’s worldwide network and its audience of government officials, policymakers, journalists, and NGOs, we will share the report with key stakeholders, including local farmers and policymakers. We believe these stories will inspire action, and that innovations in sustainable agriculture will consequently be implemented on a larger scale.

We do realize that throughout this project we will be standing on the shoulders of giants, including the International Agricultural Assessment of Science and Technology for Development that was released last year. We envision State of the World 2011 as a continuation of this work that will make IAASTD’s findings more accessible to wider audience and offer concrete recommendations. Two key audiences for this report will be the agricultural funding community, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and farmers and farmer groups on the ground in Africa.

Finally, you expressed concern that the framing of this project has the potential to be skewed. Since its inception in 1974, Worldwatch has maintained a solid reputation as a broker of independent, unbiased research. We bring our unwavering objectivity and dedication to truth to the Nourishing the Planet project. Worldwatch comes to this project without any pre-drawn conclusions or expectations of what the findings will be. And it is worth noting that, although it is too early to share all of our conclusions, there is strong opinion (and good evidence) that farmer-driven work—whether farmer-run seed banks, farmer-run marketing cooperatives, or farmer-run research—can be instrumental in reducing poverty and hunger.


Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg

Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg are Senior Researchers at the Worldwatch Institute and co-Project Directors of State of World 2011: Nourishing the Planet.

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The Price is Right?

At the World Resources Forum this week in Davos, Switzerland, the subject of prices bubbled up in ways that challenge the common assumption that “cheaper is always better.” I thought I’d share a few scattered examples:

–Many participants said that resources should be taxed to discourage their use and to help internalize their environmental costs. This should be done at the extraction phase—when ores are mined and trees are felled—for ease of administration and to realize greater reductions in environmental impact compared with interventions that occur later in the economic process.

– Ernst von Weizsäcker, one of the eminences grises of the materials-use community, noted that higher prices don’t have to mean poor economic performance. For example, Japan blossomed, more than many OECD nations did, during high oil prices between 1975 and 2000.

–The oft-heard conventional prescription to “get the prices right”—allowing market forces to evaluate scarcity and reflect it—has taken on a new and progressive meaning: getting prices to align with political goals, according King’s College economist Paul Ekins. For example, as Friends of the Earth UK notes in a 2008 report, the UK government’s efforts to set a price for carbon and to produce a carbon budget for the coming years has been based on climate change science, rather than on market dynamics.  

A healthy planet: priceless

A healthy planet: priceless

The idea that we might be better off in a more expensive world may seem incredible, given the “sell more” ethic of consumer societies, with its relentless drive to minimize prices. But a more expensive world of food, housing, and transport resonates for me. Greater expense might push us to choose durable over short-lived, beautiful over shabby, fewer over more, simplicity over clutter. In other words, a higher quality of life. Isn’t that what we’re after?

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Breaking It Down: Bringing the Industrial Process a Little Closer to the Backyard

A piece of the 'green' bottle in the backyard compost pile after six weeks.  This photo was taken one week ago but could have been taken today.  The corn plastic remains unchanged.

A piece of the 'green' bottle in the backyard compost pile after six weeks. This photo was taken one week ago but could have been taken today. The corn plastic remains unchanged.

It’s Week Seven for our ‘green’ bottle in John’s backyard compost pile, and it remains unchanged. We asked Julie Muir, program manager of the Recycling Program at PSSI—the waste service that recently started a food-scrap composting program at Stanford University—to talk with us about industrial composting. Julie is also the president of the California Resource Recovery Association, making her especially qualified to discuss composting because several California cities are collecting compostable food scraps from homes and businesses.

Why did Stanford start a food scrap collection program?

By the early 2000s, the waste industry in California had established programs to recycle many components of the waste stream. We had done bottles and cans, we had done wood and paper, and we had done construction and demolition (C&D), so it was a natural progression. The next thing in the waste stream after C&D was food scraps. This came in conjunction with the fact that there were local facilities that could take food waste. Newby Island, a landfill in San Jose, was able to take food waste for composting.

We also did some research in the dining halls [of nearby colleges and universities]. When we found that over 50 percent of the trash from the dining halls was organic (meaning able-to-be-composted), we said “yeah this is the right thing to do.”

What happens at an industrial compost facility?

The compostables, including yard waste, apple cores, etc., are dumped on a pad and examined for contamination. Major contaminants will be pulled out, such as a plastic bag full of trash. Then the waste goes into a shredding machine that breaks the compostables down into small pieces. The shredded material is put into huge piles called windrows where it sits long enough to build up heat—a sign of healthy biodegradation. After a period of 90 to 180 days, the material goes through a trammel screen to sort out uniform-sized particles for finished product. Anything bigger (“the overs”) will go back into the pile. Corn plastics and other bioplastics are usually found in the overs since they do not degrade into small enough particles over 90 to 180 days.

What are some of the benefits and problems with food scrap collection, and are they being worked out?

People aren’t used to composting, and it has a bit of a “yuck factor.” Bottle and can recycling took a long time to become successful and profitable. Some people have criticized the food scrap collection programs in San Francisco and Toronto for being ineffective, but you have to have some realistic expectations starting out. You live, you work, and you play, sometimes in three different areas. People need to encounter composting everywhere for it to become a habit.

Check back with us in two weeks to learn what happens to our ‘green’ bottle in Week Nine, and we’ll also wrap up our discussion of backyard compost and corn plastic.

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Taking the Measure of a Society

How big? Does is matter?

Trees grow tall. But their growth–or loss–is not reflected in GDP.

We tend to measure what’s important to us, so it’s encouraging to see the growing interest in metrics for building sustainable economies.

Last week, a fresh report was released calling for new measures of societal wellbeing to supplement the old standard, GDP. The report’s overarching thrust has been aired before: that we should be counting oil spills and other environmental degradation as losses on national balance sheets, not boons to the economy, while registering unpaid childcare or volunteer work as gains. (See Chapter 2 of Worldwatch’s State of the World 2008 for a discussion of all kinds of measuring sticks for greening economies.)

But what’s exciting is that this week’s report was commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and promoted by two Nobel Laureates in economics, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen. Add France to the list of countries that are giving serious attention to “greening” their national accounts.

The report’s release came as I attended the World Resources Forum in Switzerland, where measurement for sustainability was the participants’ stock in trade. Many analysts track the tonnage of materials flows—wood, metals, minerals, and other inputs to economic activity—as a proxy for environmental impact. Their measurements produce some sobering statistics: per capita consumption of materials stands at about 20 tons per year, while a sustainable level, they believe, would be about 6 tons annually.

Conference discussions made clear that measurement facilitates strategies to “decouple” economic growth from growth in resource use. For example, Japan’s “Fundamental Law for Establishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society” is designed to increase resource productivity (the amount of materials used to produce a yen’s worth of output) by 60 percent, increase recycling by 40–50 percent, and reduce waste landfills and incinerators by 60 percent, all by 2015. According to an article last year in the Journal of Industrial Ecology [subscription required], Japan is well on its way to meeting these targets. Resource productivity had increased by 25 percent, the share of materials recycled had increased by 22 percent, and final waste disposal was down 44 percent between 2000 and 2015.

Despite the Japanese accomplishment, some conference attendees expressed skepticism that techno-political measures will bring Japan to sustainable levels of materials use. They believe that changes in lifestyle are needed that will help people find happiness at simpler levels of consumption. How about some robust, reliable, and policy-relevant measurements for that?

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