Is Sustainability Still Possible? The conversation continues at sustainabilitypossible.org.
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Is Sustainability Still Possible? The conversation continues at sustainabilitypossible.org.
In “Fixing the Future,” a recent documentary on PBS, David Brancaccio takes the viewer on a road trip across America, searching for enterprising individuals and communities who are changing the way they think about the economy.
In what the video terms a jobless recovery, the difficulty is in finding, retaining, and building equity in jobs—essential in developing any sustainable economy. One burgeoning business strategy that the film explores is worker cooperatives, in which the workers own a share of the business, and are thus incentivized to work hard, increase production, and retain pride in their business. There are over 300 worker cooperatives in the United States, employing thousands of workers and generating more than $400 million in annual revenues.
Watch the trailer above or watch the whole documentary here.While small cooperatives of various sorts have become common across the country, to actually revolutionize the traditional ways of doing business, cooperatives will need to expand their scope. By identifying large-scale needs, and figuring out how to source those needs locally, cooperatives can move beyond the traditional realms of food, and into industry and manufacturing. For example, Evergreen Laundry in Cleveland, Ohio—a LEED Gold Certified cooperative—has taken advantage of the large industries in the city, like hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, and restaurants, and provides affordable laundry to those businesses. By focusing on these anchor industries, the laundry ensures it retains a reliable customer base.
In Bellingham, Washington, Sustainable Connections is going a step further, building a “relationship economy,” based on the accountability that comes with having relationships with others in a community. This idea is nothing new; it is essentially a local-based, environmentally aware economy that seeks to connect consumers with producers, cutting out the often expensive and unnecessary middleman. Brancaccio takes us through a variety of Bellingham businesses aiming at growing the local economy sustainably, including a fishing venture, a restaurant and inn, an architect designing tiny houses, and a pizza oven builder.
In the upper Midwest, Bremer Bank is also helping to build a relationship economy, maintaining personal connections with its customers, and helping them through the hard times, not just the good times. The bank is also majority owned by the Otto Bremer Foundation, a nonprofit charitable trust that uses the bank profits to provide grants in local communities. The rest of the bank is owned by its employees, borrowing from the worker cooperative model. And perhaps most interestingly, unlike most small, community-based banks, Bremer covers a large geographic area; it has over one hundred branches in three states.
The video ends with the most innovative idea–switching from a monetary economy to a time economy. In Portland, Maine, the Hour Exchange is a local initiative in which individuals provide one hour of a service and receive one time dollar. Each time dollar is the equivalent to one hour, no matter the service, so each service is considered equal, whether it is handyman work, providing professional therapy or medical assistance, giving massages, or offering sailing lessons. The Hour Exchange offers a way for uninsured people to receive proper medical assistance, a way to meet and interact with other community members, and to do something that you genuinely enjoy in exchange for another service you need. In seven and a half months, the Hour Exchange has generated 6,300 time dollars worth of transactions—and countless new community connections.
While full of enterprising business models—and an important critique of using GDP as a measure of national economic well-being–the film leaves some important questions unanswered. The focus is primarily on small-scale businesses. Though small-scale businesses are important, particularly in local communities, it is difficult to envision any sort of dramatic shift away from our corporate world towards a more localized one. For example, in Austin, Texas, Brancaccio visits a sustainable home/building supply/department store. He drives the streets of Austin in a tiny car-to-go. He gets lemonade from a locally-owned food trailer. All good-intentioned, but hardly groundbreaking businesses, and it is unclear how this concept of a locally-based economy will productively spread, creating sustainable jobs on the order a sustainable economy requires.
The video argues that if we take a lesson from cell phones, we can in fact alter the face of the economy. Cell phone towers are individually quite limited, serving only a small area, but capable of bouncing signals to the next tower. If we utilize this idea of localized networks sharing information and communicating with each other, then the overall network becomes a large, diversified, and powerful movement. While there is truth to this, it is also a vast oversimplification. The small, individual networks must contend with the already enormous corporate conglomerates, and it may be that no amount of communication and sharing will be able to overcome the status quo.
“What kind of economy is consistent with living inside a living being?” This was a question posed to us under a leafy canopy, deep in the woods of southern England, not far from Schumacher College where I’d come as a teacher. I stood listening with a group of students as resident ecologist Stephan Harding posed what for me would become a pivotal question – the only question there is, really, as we negotiate the turn from the industrial age into an entirely new age of civilization.
I’d come to Schumacher to share my learnings from four years as co-founder of Corporation 20/20 at Tellus Institute in Boston, where I’d helped to lead hundreds of experts in business, law, government, labor, and civil society to explore what, at the time, seemed to me the most critical question of our day: How could corporations be redesigned to incorporate social and ecological aims as deeply as financial aims?
Over 20 years as co-founder and publisher of Business Ethics magazine, I had seen how corporations and financial markets had come to be the dominant institutions of society, and how their profit-maximizing operating system had become the operating system of the planet. That design lay at the root of many major ills facing our society. But if corporate design was the core problem, the question of redesigning corporations did not quite hit the mark as the solution. It was Stephan’s talk that helped me understand why.
You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it. You start with life, with human life and the life of the planet, and ask, how do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?
If you stand inside a large corporation and ask how to make our economy more sustainable, the answers are about incremental change from the existing model. The only way to start that conversation is to fit your concerns inside the frame of profit maximization. (“Here’s how you can make more money through sustainability practices.”) Asking corporations to change their fundamental frame is like asking a bear to change its DNA and become a swan.
The founding generation of America didn’t begin by telling the king how caring for the peasants would improve his return on investment. They articulated truths they held to be self-evident. That’s what Stephan did in that forest. He said simply:
“A thing is right when it enhances the stability and beauty of the total ecosystem. It is wrong when it damages it.”
The sustainability of the larger system comes first. Everything else has to fit itself within that frame.
From maximizing profits to sustaining life
If the dominant ownership designs of today are built around profit maximization, central to that imperative is the need to grow. As Herman Daly and others have so eloquently articulated, the growth imperative threatens the living system of the Earth. When we take apart the system to see where this imperative resides, we find that what keeps it in overdrive are the demands of Wall Street for ever-higher profits and stock price. Corporations, and the capital markets where their ownership shares trade, are the internal combustion engine of the capitalist economy. They are where it hits the ground and goes. And where it spins out of control. As Fritjof Capra put it, “It’s an alarming thought that organizational systems are now the main driving force of ecological systems.”
In the short run, profit-maximizing companies can help in a rapid transition to an ecologically cleaner economy. But in the somewhat longer run, that transition might represent a brief moment in time. If human civilization and planetary ecosystems are still functioning well 50 years from now (not a small if), what about the next 50 years? And the next 100 or 200 or 1,000 years beyond that? What kind of economy will be suited for ongoing life inside the living earth? Will it be an economy dominated by massive corporations intent solely on earnings growth? That doesn’t seem likely. When you take the long view, the question turns itself about:
Can we sustain a low-growth or no-growth economy indefinitely without changing dominant ownership designs?
That seems unlikely. Probably impossible. How, then, do we make the turn? How can we design economic architectures that are self-organized not around profit maximization, but around serving the needs of life?
After my sojourn in England, this question set me on a journey in search of answers. I had seen, over many years, how extractive design – the quest for endless extraction of more and more financial wealth – was at the root of many of our ills. I began a quest to find alternative designs. And I was heartened to find they were everywhere, emerging in largely unsung, disconnected experiments all over the world.
I visited wind farms in Denmark that had been started and owned by wind guilds, groups of small investors who joined together to fund and own wind installations, with no corporate middleman. Denmark now generates one-fifth of its electric power from wind, more than any other nation. And this success is widely credited to the grassroots movement of the wind guilds. It’s an ecological success story made possible by the community-rooted ownership designs behind it.
I studied the community forests of Mexico, where the rights to govern and profit from the forest have often been granted to local communities, many of them indigenous tribal peoples – like the Zapotec Indians of Ixtlan de Juarez in southern Mexico. At Ixtlan, the problems that bedeviled other forests in Mexico, like deforestation and illegal logging, have become relatively unknown. The reason is community members have incentive to be stewards, because forest enterprises employ 300 people harvesting timber, making furniture, and caring for the forest. These are living forests, communities of trees and humans, where the purpose is to live well together. Worldwide, more than a quarter of forests in developing nations are managed by local communities. In Mexico, community forests represent more than 60 percent of all forests. Yet they remain virtually unknown, even in Mexico.
On Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, I visited South Mountain Company, an employee-owned design and build firm specializing in sustainable construction, which has made a deliberate choice to slow down its growth. It was the first example I’d seen of a consciously post-growth company. As its president John Abrams had written, this company was “challenging the false gospel of unchecked growth.” After the crash of 2008, it had in fact opted to shrink – and to do so in the most humane way possible. Its ability to make that choice arose directly from the fact that the company was owned and controlled not by absentee owners, but by its own employees.
In Maine, I visited a lobster cooperative that supported more than 40 families, helping them by allowing lobstermen to collectively buy bait and sell their catch efficiently. It is a small-scale community ownership design that is part of a larger economic design – a state governing framework. That framework includes democratically elected lobster zone councils, as well as ecological rules prohibiting the taking of lobsters that are under-age, or carrying eggs. Most innovatively, the state rules prohibit corporate boats from operating in sensitive inshore waters, allowing only owner-operated boats there. In other words, only small, local, mom-and-pop type lobster operations are allowed to work the best waters. At a time when the vast majority of the world’s fish stocks are overexploited, the Maine lobster industry remains vibrant. It is often cited as an example of successful collective action in “common pool resource management.” Rules on ownership design are central to it all.
In Denmark, I visited the town of Kalundborg, where the major pharmaceutical Novo Nordisk produces 40 percent of the world’s insulin. The town is home to a famed example of “industrial symbiosis,” where this company’s waste becomes food for the ecosystem. Yeast from making insulin, for example, is treated and then passed to farmers to be used as food for pigs, or for fertilizer. That ecological design – which has been operating and stable for decades – is possible only because ownership of this major, publicly traded company is also stable. It is an example of a design that is common throughout northern Europe, which can be called the “mission-controlled corporation.” The aim of this company is to defeat diabetes. And the corporation is legally controlled by a foundation, intent on that social mission.
These various models embody a coherent school of design – a common form of organization that brings the living concerns of the human and ecological communities into the world of property rights and economic power. They can be called a family of generative ownership designs. They are aimed at creating the conditions where all life can thrive. Together, they potentially form the foundation for a generative economy – a living economy that might have a built-in tendency to be socially fair and ecologically sustainable.
In ownership design, there are five essential patterns that work together to create either extractive or generative design: purpose, membership, governance, capital, and networks. Extractive ownership has a Financial Purpose: maximizing profits. Generative ownership has a Living Purpose: creating the conditions for life. While corporations today have Absentee Membership, with owners disconnected from the life of enterprise, generative ownership has Rooted Membership, with ownership held in human hands. While extractive ownership involves Governance by Markets, with control by capital markets on autopilot, generative designs have Mission-Controlled Governance, with control by those focused on social mission. While extractive investments involve Casino Finance, alternative approaches involve Stakeholder Finance, where capital becomes a friend rather than a master. Instead of Commodity Networks, where goods are traded based solely on price, generative economic relations are supported by Ethical Networks, which offer collective support for social and ecological norms.
Ownership is the gravitational field that holds an economy in its orbit. Today, dominant ownership designs lock us into behaviors that lead to financial excess and ecological overshoot. But emerging, alternative ownership patterns – when properly designed – can have a tendency to lead to beneficial outcomes. It may be that these designs are the elements needed to form the foundation for a generative economy, a living economy – an economy that might at last be consistent with living inside a living being.
Marjorie Kelly is a Fellow at Tellus Institute in Boston and author of The Divine Right of Capital and the more recent Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution. Learn more at www.OwningOurFuture.com.
Following “Superstorm Sandy”, it has once more become acceptable in the United States to talk about climate change and its repercussions. And a re-elected President Obama now feels less constrained to engage the topic. It remains to be seen, however, whether this change of circumstances will do much to revitalize international climate talks, where U.S. recalcitrance has been among the reasons why negotiations have been stalled for years.
Both scientific reports and real-life experiences make stepped up action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions ever more critical. The UN Environment Programme now estimates that the “emissions gap” by the year 2020 amounts to an estimated 8 to 13 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. This is the difference between a level of emissions consistent with a “safe” target of no more than a 2 degree Celsius increase in global average temperatures and the emissions projected under current policies.
The actual emissions trajectory increases the likelihood that the Earth will heat up by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. A new scientific report by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics warns that the consequences will be cataclysmic in many regions of the world, including unprecedented heat-waves, inundated coastal cities, exacerbated water scarcity, increasing risks for food production, increased intensity of tropical cyclones, and irreversible loss of biodiversity.
In more and more places around the world, these repercussions are no longer just the stuff of abstract climate models or conjecture—they are becoming increasingly real. Take Syria, for instance. In late 2010, the New York Times reported that after four consecutive years of drought—the worst in 40 years—Syria’s agricultural heartland, along with adjacent areas in Iraq, was in deep trouble: “Ancient irrigation systems have collapsed, underground water sources have run dry and hundreds of villages have been abandoned as farmlands turn to cracked desert and grazing animals die off. Sandstorms have become far more common, and vast tent cities of dispossessed farmers and their families have risen up around the larger towns and cities of Syria and Iraq.”
In 2008, wheat production dropped to 2.1 million metric tons, 56 percent below the peak reached just five years earlier. Although harvests increased again in subsequent years, they remain a quarter below the 2003 level.
Drought conditions in Syria and Iraq during April 7-22, 2009 (NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided by Inbal Reshef, Global Agricultural Monitoring Project. Caption by Holli Riebeek.)
Primarily affected by the lack of rainfall was the country’s northeast, which accounts for 75 percent of total wheat production in Syria. The 2011 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction notes that since the start of the drought, close to 75 percent of agriculture-dependent households in the northeast have suffered total crop failure. Prior to the drought, Syria’s agriculture sector accounted for 40 percent of the country’s workforce and 25 percent of gross domestic product. Some 2–3 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty by a combination of lack of crop income and the need to sell livestock at 60–70 percent below cost. Syria’s livestock herd has been decimated from 21 million to an estimated 14–16 million.
This calamity is the result of a number of factors. Climate change is joined by resource mismanagement, including the overexploitation of groundwater (due to subsidies for water-thirsty crops such as cotton and wheat), inefficient irrigation systems, and over-grazing.
The drought has led to an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from rural to urban areas. Syria’s cities were already under economic stress, in part because of the large-scale influx of refugees from Iraq after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Growing numbers of destitute people find themselves in intense competition for scarce jobs and access to resources. In an analysis in early 2012, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell write that “the role of disaffected rural communities in the Syrian opposition movement has been prominent compared to their equivalents in other ‘Arab Spring’ countries. Indeed, the rural farming town of Dara’a was the focal point for protests in the early stages of the opposition movement last year – a place that was especially hard hit by five years of drought and water scarcity, with little assistance from the al-Assad regime.”
Syria’s experience suggests that environmental and resource pressures, including climate change, could become an important driver of displacement. And while deep-seated popular discontent over decades of repressive rule surely is a key driver of Syria’s civil war, climate-induced pressures have added fuel to the fire. This is a key point: the repercussions from environmental degradation do not occur in a void, but rather interact with a cauldron of pre-existing societal pressures and problems.
Countries around the world will not only experience the physical effects of climate change differently, but the way in which these changes translate into the social, economic, and political sphere will also differ substantially. Adaptability and resilience are key factors shaping the response. In divided societies such as Syria, the impacts of climate change could turn out to be political dynamite. If we want to avoid such unprecedented experiments, then climate negotiators and their bosses—meeting November 26 to December 7 in Doha for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework on Climate Change—need to step up their game.
The transport sector is key to a more sustainable economy. Industrialized economies have developed auto-centered systems that relegate public transportation, as well as walking and biking to a mere sideshow. Investments in automobile infrastructure such as highways and parking lots continue to outpace spending for alternative modes in most countries, and production of cars keeps expanding.
As I explain in my latest Vital Signs Online article, for a short while it looked as though the growth in car production might come to an end. The severe global economic crisis that broke into the open in 2008 led to a plunge in production of so-called light vehicles (passenger cars and light trucks) from 69 million units in 2007 to 60 million in 2009.
But since then, output has resumed with a vengeance, driven not only by recovery in Western industrialized countries, but especially by the surge in production and sales in China (which is now by far the leading manufacturer) and other so-called emerging economies, such as India and Brazil. Worldwide, the production of cars and light trucks jumped to 74.3 million in 2010 and 76.8 million in 2011—and 2012 may bring a new all-time record of more than 80 million vehicles.
Sales are similarly soaring and translate into ever-expanding fleets. An estimated 691 million passenger cars were on the world’s roads in 2011. When both light- and heavy-duty trucks are included, the number rises to 979 million vehicles. By the end of this year, the number could well top 1 billion vehicles—one for every seven people on the planet.
Automobiles are major contributors to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Greater fuel efficiency can help reduce these impacts, although increases in the numbers of cars and the distances driven threaten to overwhelm fuel economy advances.
Japan and the European Union are the global leaders in fuel efficiency, and China is seeking to improve the performance of its vehicles as well. The United States has long lagged behind, but the new fuel economy rules issued recently by the Obama Administration will go a long way toward having the country catch up. The new rules require auto manufacturers to increase the average efficiency of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
The vast majority of cars continue to have conventional propulsion systems, either gasoline or diesel-powered combustion engines. Hybrid gas-electric vehicles and fully electric vehicles still constitute only a very small share of total production—about 2 percent.
Another dimension that will make a difference in reducing automobiles’ environmental footprint concerns the distances traveled by car. The United States accounted for slightly above 40 percent of the 10.3 trillion passenger-kilometers driven in all countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2008, even though it has just 25 percent of the total OECD population.
But there are indications that U.S. car travel, growing inexorably for decades, may have finally peaked. Vehicle miles of travel are down from 4,878 billion vehicle kilometers (pkm) in 2007 to 4,776 billion pkm in 2010.
Car travel in other OECD countries appears to have plateaued, but it is still growing strongly in emerging and developing countries. In China, driving distances have risen from 262 billion pkm in 1990 to 1,351 billion pkm in 2009, slightly more than a fivefold expansion. Car travel in non-OECD countries doubled between 1975 and 2000, but then it picked up pace by doubling again in just the decade to 2010. Altogether, global light-duty vehicle use was nearly 2.5 times higher in 2010 than it was in 1975. Ground transportation is still far from sustainable.
(Written by Michael Renner)
Over the past year, State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity has prompted many conversations–on how to grow green jobs, on how to degrow the economy, on how to transform corporations, local governance and global government institutions. These discussions, and many others, have evolved over the year but certainly revolve around a common set of themes: environmental sustainability, equity, justice, and societal resilience.
It’s now time to facilitate even more discussions–in classrooms, in book groups, in techno clubs (ok, we’ll be happy with 2 out of 3 of these)–by publishing State of the World 2012 Discussion Guide & Review Questions. Available for free download here.
This illustrated discussion guide includes questions for all 17 chapters–plus brief chapter summaries. A total of 90 questions in all. The one thing that’s missing are answers, so you’ll have to provide those yourselves. So check it out!
And if you use this guide in a discussion group you set up, don’t forget to leave your comments on it below.
The US is a car culture. In 2010, 95% of American households owned a car and 85% of Americans drove to work each day. This is radically different from the lifestyle most Americans had after World War II, when 40% of Americans did not own cars.
China and India are rapidly adopting the US living standard, and cars are flooding the streets. In 2011, China had 100 million cars on its streets, or about 10 percent of the more than 1 billion cars on streets worldwide. On average, 9.51 million automobiles were added each year between 2006 and 2010, exceeding the government’s ability to add roads and prepare for the increasing demand on transport infrastructure. Reacting to this mismatch, cities are establishing car quotas to attempt to slow the growth. This year in Beijing, for example, a car-quota system was put into effect, allowing the registration of no more than 240,000 new cars annually.
Similar to trends worldwide, Chinese buyers have shown little interest in the clean car and electric vehicle technology. Instead, sales of SUVs and luxury cars have risen; in China, SUV sales surged by 24%. With climate change’s severe implications on display in today’s environment, policy-makers must incentivize sustainable transportation technologies, such as public transportation or electric vehicles (EVs). In China, if the purchase price of EVs was subsidized by 57% to 67%, a recent report by the Deutsche Bank Group estimates that “66% of the end-market could be potential costumers compared to the 29% of the market now addressed by the current subsidies scheme.” However, in order for EVs to be truly sustainable, electricity generation must be less coal-based, and instead be generated by renewable energy.
This spring, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) released the EV City Casebook, detailing the importance of reforming the transportation sector. “In 2009, transportation accounted for approximately one-fifth of the global primary energy use and one quarter of all energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with nearly half of those emissions originating from passenger vehicles” (IEA).
The report explains that if no major energy and climate policies are introduced, the number of vehicles and consumption of fuels will continue to rise, and will more than double by 2050. In order to prevent this growth and reduce the devastating effects of transportation’s CO2 emissions, the report argues that EVs must be integrated into transportation infrastructure, especially in urban areas.
EVs increase energy security by decreasing dependence on petroleum, and using a more diverse mix of fuel. Additionally, EVs emit 50-75% less than CO2 per kilometer than even today’s most efficient cars. In order to maximize green technology, such as EVs, EV-friendly infrastructure must be incorporated into urban planning in order to catalyze the transition from a fossil-fuel dependent car culture to a more sustainable transportation model.
The report outlines city case studies to reveal the opportunities and challenges that city planners confronted during the planning and integration process. The report additionally provides resources for cities to share knowledge and network, thus furthering successful EV implementation. Some of the networks cited in the report include: the Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI), Project Get Ready, Implementing Agreement for Cooperation on Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Technologies and Programmes, and C40 Cities in partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative.
Cities are moving fast to adopt green infrastructure and clean technology. For example, by 2040, Amsterdam strives to generate all of the electricity used by EVs with renewable energy, such as windmills and solar panels. And in just three years, Amsterdam aims to increase the number of EVs on its road from 750 to 10,000 EVs.
The report provides a very useful overview of policy strategies, enabling readers to compare how municipal and national governments are seeking to increase EV fleet size, and learning about outside actors that governments are engaging to achieve their EV targets. One highlighted partnership is between Barcelona and SIEMENS, which will increase the number of hybrids on the roadways and build 100% electric routes in neighborhoods that have mobility difficulties.
In wake of Rio+20 and the commitment of $175 billion from the 8-largest multi-lateral banks, sustainable transportation initiatives will continue to gain momentum. EVs will be one part of larger, sustainable transport solutions. As EVs become more commonplace, prices will fall and consumers will purchase more of them. Cities and communities are already realizing the benefits of EVs; it is time national governments commit to greener transportation technologies as well, thereby ensuring a sustainable energy future.
(Written by Antonia Sohns)
Political leaders did not create any new global treaties at the recent Rio+20 summit. Instead, they acknowledged and reaffirmed their commitments from previous global conferences and emphasized the need for implementation. Implementation, however, can occur when effective institutions are in place, adequate resources are available, and citizens are genuinely engaged.
The institutional framework for sustainable development received significant attention at Rio+20. Discussions focused on two tracks – institutions for environment and institutions for sustainable development – and on two main UN bodies – the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). In the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, governments committed to “strengthen and upgrade” UNEP and to abolish CSD and replace it with a High-Level Forum.
In “A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance” chapter of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity, I examine steps that can be taken to improve UNEP’s effectiveness as the anchor institution for the global environment. Some of the recommendations articulated in the chapter appear in The Future We Want and await approval by the UN General Assembly in September 2012.
UNEP was conceived at the 1972 Stockholm Conference. It was envisioned as the anchor institution that would promote partnership among organizations, nations, and people in order to enhance the quality of life for people while providing stewardship for the planet.
Over UNEP’s 40 years of existence, it has become apparent that the organization is crippled by a lack of resources and a lack of authority. These deficiencies have constrained UNEP from inspiring the broad, catalytic environmental policies its creators envisaged.
In order to increase UNEP’s efficacy in addressing environmental concerns and improving partnerships, governments have proposed several options for reform. One of the most debated suggestions is a plan to transform the UNEP from a subsidiary body of the UN General Assembly into a specialized agency. The European Union pushed hard for this to be a major outcome of Rio+20. Many other governments (and analysts) argued, however, that UNEP must fulfill its original mandate by improving its operations without dramatically changing its current institutional form.
The outcome was a decision to “upgrade and strengthen” UNEP by expanding the membership of its Governing Council from 58 countries to universal membership; increasing its financial resources, including contributions from the UN regular budget; and expanding its role in capacity-building and implementation. Governments might also consider creating a smaller, geographically representative board which could be charged with operational management.
UNEP’s authority will ultimately come from within the organization. Increased expertise, connectivity and reach will help UNEP become the “go-to” organization for environmental information, policy guidance, and institutional support for national governments and UN organizations alike. To this end, UNEP could recruit experts that will actively engage in its work. The creation of an independent scientific advisory body could be an important step in augmenting UNEP’s analytical capacity.
UNEP must also enhance its connectivity. UNEP’s limited presence beyond its Nairobi, Kenya headquarters reduces its ability to collaborate with other organizations on key environmental issues. At the same time, UNEP’s distinct location in a growing city in a developing country provides UNEP with a unique ability to engage with other developing countries. Moreover, with improved information and communication technology worldwide, UNEP should increase its global online presence and the use of social media in order to promote its mission and catalyze environmental policies.
Significant increase in UNEP’s financial resources will be critical to its ability to fulfill its core functions. While the lack of funds is often attributed to their voluntary nature, there is no direct causality between voluntary contributions and the size of an organization’s budget. Indeed, the four largest budgets in the UN system in 2010 were of UN bodies with voluntary funding mechanisms: UNDP, WFP, UNICEF and UNHCR. To attract and retain donors, UNEP must build on increased authority and media presence, and consistently demonstrate the important findings of its work. To foster donor trust, UNEP could publish comprehensive financial reports that indicate spending in terms of mandated functions. At the same time, governments should consider enacting a limited system of assessed contributions to support UNEP’s core work. Financial transparency and a hybrid financing mechanism could enhance UNEP’s stability and financial security.
While there is no single solution that will ameliorate all of the challenges UNEP faces, by improving its authority, connectivity, and financial resources, UNEP could enhance its ability to be the leading environmental institution on the global stage.
Unemployment plagues today’s nations. In Europe, unemployment rate was 11.2% in June. Within those European unemployment statistics, the working youth less than 25 years old are particularly affected – with an unemployment rate of 22.4%. In comparison, national unemployment in the US is approximately 8%.
In order to ameliorate unemployment, improve individual well-being and protect the environment, governments need to restructure our employment regime. By encouraging the development of a new employment model, governments can ensure sustainable prosperity while creating quality green jobs for all.
Currently, most employment structures, like the American system, do little to “share” work. Instead, productivity growth is decoupled from hours worked, and employers pay benefits per person rather than per hour. This model results in a society of higher unemployment and larger incomes for the over-employed because during economic downturns, employees are forced out of the labor market so employers don’t have to cover their benefits. As a result, the remaining employees are worked harder.
This employment system is no longer sustainable as people work 40 hour and 50 hour work weeks and struggle to get by. This model must be reformed.
Shared work can reduce unemployment by allowing people to work part-time, as full time workers are required to work fewer hours. According to a report released by the European Green Foundation last year, transitioning to a work-week of fewer “working” hours will boost job creation. In France, a shift to a 35-hour working week created 350,000 jobs between 1998 and 2002. Additionally, no European country has managed to achieve an unemployment rate below 6% without having at least 25% of its workforce employed part-time, and the average working hours not exceed 21 hours per week.
In fact, Europe has been at the forefront of experimenting with different work-week models and can provide insight into how models influence development and employment.
Despite income disparity between European nations and differences in culture and history, Europeans share a similar full-time working week of around 39 to 43 hours. The difference in hours is due to the three dominant models of European employment. In Scandinavian countries, Austria, Netherlands and the UK, work is shared on the basis of three-quarters of the population working full time and one-quarter working part-time. Sweden, for example, employs this model and has the longest average part-time hours in Europe – with 23.5 hours, or nearly 3 days of part-time work per week. Another more traditional model employed by countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, does not commonly use part-time employment due to lagging economies and the legacy of recession and the sovereign debt crisis. The third model rejects widespread part-time work, and therefore bears higher costs of unemployment. Yet, countries like France, Belgium and Finland, which use this model, have managed to kept productivity high.
If a part-time work model is rejected and government seeks to reduce unemployment, the only solution to share employment is by reducing full-time working hours.
It is vital that work hours and productivity be understood as distinct from one another. Nations with the most work hours are not necessarily the most productive. Therefore, decreasing work hours doesn’t mean that production will be diminished.
Furthermore, modifying employment structure will benefit society by promoting gender equality, as women are more able to enter the work force to fill part-time positions. Sharing of work hours will also help to erode barriers by distributing work between new employees and older generations, and insiders and outsiders.
Reforming the employment structure will additionally benefit the environment. A recent study revealed that reducing working hours by 10% could diminish individual carbon footprints by 15% due to decreased consumption of goods and energy. Also, the US emits 50 to 70% more greenhouse gas emissions than European nations, and the US has a longer work-week.
In order for successful transformation of the employment structure and therefore society, individuals and communities will need to cooperate in negotiationsof new employment models. The systems must be tested in order to understand how the flow of capital will be affected, and to realize all the benefits of a modified working regime.
"The mom and dad who switched jobs," a Swedish educational book about gender equality (Photo via Fllickr, by anna_t)
Though the concept of shared working hours seems radical at first, in the current global economy of low growth and high productivity and a surging world population, the decoupling of productivity and hours worked must be addressed by political and business leaders alike. By implementing systemic change, more individuals will be able to work, instead of some working more and others less— helping people make ends meet, encouraging healthier lifestyles and ensuring a sustainable future.
(Written by Antonia Sohns)
Degrowth is a dirty word in growth-centric cultures like the United States. But with humanity using one and a half Earths worth of biocapacity every year, if we want to stabilize the climate and other declining ecosystem services, we’ll have to stop both our populations and the global economy from growing any larger. And some of the most developed—or what I’d call overdeveloped—economies will actually even have to degrow to a significant degree, especially as least developed economies will still need to grow to provide a basic level of well-being for their populations and as the global population is projected to grow by another 2 billion before stabilizing.
Although degrowth is not an idea many are willing to embrace or even grapple with, degrowth is inevitable. The question is only whether we control the process or it takes the form of a rapid collapse—Soviet style or worse. But controlled degrowth, far from being uncomfortable, may actually help to solve many of our current societal problems. Obesity is an obvious one—with two-thirds of Americans now overweight or obese—but so are work stress, high debt levels, social isolation, and pharmaceutical dependence (anti-depressants are the third most prescribed drug in America).
In business terms, degrowth sounds even more disturbing—almost sacrilegious. But let’s not forget that there are ways to profit even from degrowth. Those in the home energy-retrofit industry can attest to that. As can the local bike shops and shared car and shared bike services, which are cropping up in cities around the world. But that is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. While I won’t go into a broader plan on how societies can best degrow here (I do that in my State of the World 2012 chapter “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries”), I will describe some business sectors that will bloom as degrowth is pursued in earnest, in case there are some bold entrepreneurs reading this article.
The recession has led many elderly parents to move in with their children and unemployed adults to move back in with their parents. For many who have grown up in individualistic cultures, this is viewed as unfortunate, even tragic, but in reality this is how human families have lived throughout much of history. As formal sector jobs become scarcer, the security of community is rediscovered, and expensive energy reduces the ease of mobility, the multi-generational home will once again become the norm. Those first adopters that start selling multi-generational housing, like the U.S. housing developer Lennar, or that retrofit houses or properties to make them multi-generational friendly will stand to prosper in this transition.
As the Great Recession took hold, sales of seeds also skyrocketed as more people converted grassy lawns into vegetable gardens. The era of wasting money, time, and water on something as useless as grass will come to a quick end as food prices soar. During this transition, sellers of seeds, shovels and other basic farming implements, and eco-accoutrements like rain barrels and compost containers will thrive.
Although containers of crickets or grasshoppers won’t be sold in U.S. grocery stores anytime soon, consumers have shown that they are quite willing to eat strange things when embedded in a frozen patty—whether soy protein concentrate, the fungus Fusarium venenatum (better known as Quorn), or ground Tenebrio molitor (better known as mealworms). As cultural taboos weaken over time and the price of hamburger skyrockets to $20 per pound, entrepreneurs in the edible-insect industry will stand to do very well. Indeed, the Dutch government recently invested a million Euros to draft legislation that oversees the development of insect farms for human consumption. Such policy will position the Dutch as a leading producer of insect protein, and at the forefront of a burgeoning industry.
Any industry that leads to the extraction of millions of tons of material each year—including 1.6 million tons of concrete and 90,000 tons of steel—only to bury it once again is clearly an ecological mistake, and in the long-run, a failed business model. But some entrepreneurs in the funeral industry are reinventing what constitutes a “normal” burial, burying people in simple shrouds, untoxified with formaldehyde and using the funeral costs to help finance creation of innovative, natural cemeteries—which in turn create new parks, sequester carbon, and become protected biodiversity reserves. With the increasing expense of natural resources combined with an aging and sickly population—thanks to the consumer diet and lifestyle—green burial will surely be a growth industry for years to come.
These are just a few of the sectors that could bloom as we shift to a constrained future where the fast-paced, unhealthy, and unsustainable experiment of consumer-driven globalization winds down. Yes, new sectors might not make up completely for jobs lost in old polluting sectors, but more people will be working fewer hours; living simpler, less stressed lives; and will rediscover that homesteading as part of a connected community is a much more secure way of life than depending on a globalized food system that is regularly disrupted by drought, storm and wildfire. Best of all, seizing these opportunities will take pressure off Earth’s overstressed biocapacity. Let’s just hope that we take control of the degrowth process while we still have that luxury.