Tag Archives: poverty

Not-for-profit enterprise: A talk

So last week I was waxing lyrical about this talk I was about to go to, called “Is the post-growth economy already here?” by Donnie Maclurcan, from the Post Growth Institute. It was part of a UK-wide speaking tour, in promotion for a new book (How, On Earth?) by Donnie and one of the co-directors of the Institute, Jennifer Hinton.

The cover of How, on Earth?

The cover of ‘How, on Earth?’

So I went to the talk, and I really enjoyed it. Let me walk you through some of the key points, and the bits I thought were most exciting. You can also read the blurb for the talk, for some background, here.

Near the start of the talk, Donnie Maclurcan stated that we have two major global crises, which are completely interconnected.

One is the ecological crisis. The fact that each year we’re now using more resources than can be replenished, and creating more waste than can be assimilated. This is leading to widespread species loss, dangerous climate change, land degradation and the rest. As he’s the executive director of the Post Growth Institute it’s not surprising he doesn’t believe in the fantasy story of infinite economic growth.

The other crisis is spiralling financial inequality. He quoted the well-publicised but ever sickening statistic from Oxfam, that the world’s richest 85 people have the same combined wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion*.

The two are connected because rising inequality leads to over-consumption, through status envy and competition. And in a neoliberal economy where growth is prioritized above all else, consumption will be tightly culturally linked with the idea of success.  Because that’s what’s needed to keep the growth engine going.

Anyway, Maclurcan thinks the solution to the two problems is not loads of regulation, nor flashy brands of ‘creative capitalism’, but not-for-profit enterpriseContinue reading

Monkeys in the trees, Peruvian rainforest. Not my image.

I Bought a Rainforest

Have you seen the new BBC documentary series called I Bought a Rainforest?

I’ve watched the first two episodes. It’s about a wildlife photographer called Charlie who spontaneously buys 100 acres of the Amazon, in Peru, in order to protect it from illegal loggers.  His patch is strategically placed next to a national park, at the end of the only road for many miles. Loggers are felling trees in the national park, despite it being a protected area. Charlie plans to stop them.

So far, so simple, right? The animal-loving camera-man is the goodie and the illegal loggers who are killing the rainforest – the lungs of the planet and one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world – are undoubtedly the baddies.

But no. It would be very naive to assume real life is like a story of good vs evil. Much to Charlie’s dismay, it turns out the nasty loggers decimating the protected forest are really just cripplingly poor locals who have no other way to feed their families. One of them has a disabled daughter who isn’t getting the care she needs and can’t go to school.  Continue reading

Free the Fruit

I just got back from a field-trip with my university to Morocco. It was an incredible experience. But what I want to talk (write) about today is not the sun or the spices or the camels or snake-charmers, nor the invigorating thrill of leaving Europe for the first time, but the orange trees.

In the city of Marrakech, the streets outside the central medina are lined with orange trees. They’re very beautiful and they smell amazing, like someone passing by has a stylish citrus perfume that lingers after they’ve gone. But what I was more excited about was the possibility of abundant fruit. Seeing as the trees were in a public space and there were many poor people who could do with a free snack, I thought maybe the oranges were free for the picking: a civic resource. Upon asking our guide, I found out that for some ungodly reason they weren’t edible oranges, they were some bitter un-eatable variety.

I have no idea why, and it seems like a lost opportunity to me. I’ve always thought cities would be much improved with a sprinkling of fruit trees, lining avenues and adorning parks. I mean, trees already make oxygen, and you can’t really get anything more useful than that. When you consider they also absorb carbon, look pretty and offer food and shelter to wildlife, it’s a done deal. But while you’re at it, why not sweeten the deal with a bounty of fresh fruit?

In the UK and all around the world, we could have local councils and community groups get on a fruit-tree-planting-mission and tick off a tonne of jobs in one go. It’s really important that the fruit be free for local people to pick and eat though. That’s the beauty of the scheme. People shouldn’t be allowed to hog the harvest or take away bagfuls to sell, but they should be able to have their fill. Allowing something to be free does require bursting out of that sad old everything-is-for-sale mentality that seems to pervade our everyday lives. I realise that would be kinda difficult for some people to get their heads around, but I happen to think it’s a nice idea. It would improve poorer people’s chances of getting plenty of fresh fruit, which as a student I happen to know can be expensive. It’d also cut into our food miles and boost food security. Considering the UK imports around 90% of its fruit*, a little action wouldn’t go amiss.

Free peaches! Not my image.

Free peaches! Not my image.

And could it really be more obvious that fruit trees might as well produce edible fruit?
I don’t know what those Moroccan town-planners were thinking, but I bet if they’d done a survey close to 100% of people would have opted for free delicious oranges over useless inedible ones.

* Statistic from The Constant Economy by Zac Goldsmith.

Not my image.

Soaring Energy Prices

Have you noticed the rise in energy prices?

I topped up my electricity key just a few days ago, but I’m already in the emergency.

Not my image.

Not my image.

If it hasn’t hit you on a practical level yet, you’ve probably at least heard about it on the news. Four of the Big Six energy companies have already raised their prices, by an average of 9.1%, and the other two are going to do it soon as well. Continue reading

Getting Past the Dilemma of Growth

Indefinite economic growth is not physically possible, and there’s mounting evidence and opinion that it’s not even desirable.

Cartoon by Polyp.org.uk

Cartoon by Polyp.org.uk

I’m convinced that our best hope of sustainable progress is to transition to a steady-state economy, where consumption and population are kept at steady, ecologically safe levels, and equitable human well-being is the overarching focus. In Enough is Enough, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill outline a practical blueprint for such an economy. Their engaging and accessible book suggests seven key policy goals, each with examples of specific policies:

  • Limit throughput of natural resources
  • Stabilize population
  • Distribute income and wealth
  • Reform financial institutions
  • Change our progress indicators
  • Secure meaningful jobs
  • Rethink commerce

Although these are all brilliant suggestions, I think the book misses a crucial point. After reading Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson, I’ve realised that I was being quite naïve in my assumption that the only things blocking my vision of a steady-state were political will and corporate influence. Of course those are huge obstacles, but the real underlying obstacle is what Jackson calls ‘’the dilemma of growth’’.

This dilemma, or paradox, is that although continued economic growth risks ecological collapse, we’re locked in to chasing it simply because our economy doesn’t work if it stops growing. When growth stops, or even slows down too much, it causes recession. People lose their jobs, and sometimes their homes. Businesses go bankrupt. The government interferes by borrowing money from banks and hands out stimulus packages, desperate to get the economy growing again. But this creates public debt.

This is why economic growth is always the top priority, why the media’s always cheerleading it and why the political will for a steady-state is non-existent. But it’s vital that we get past this catch-22, and fast. While we’re forced to pursue economic growth, action on climate change, poverty, social justice and biodiversity loss will be marginal. We desperately need to find a way past this systemic problem, because limiting throughput (and Dietz and O’Neill’s other ideas) won’t be possible in a growth-based economy.

If you thought this post was going to just be me moaning about the problem, then think again. I’ve been racking my brains and I’ve come up with an idea, which I think is feasible.

This is a top-down, policy based approach. Later I’ll be writing about what role individuals, businesses, the media and NGOs will play in the transition.

Stage 1:
Introduce substantial taxes on all forms of pollution (atmospheric, water, soil etc). This would have four beneficial effects. Firstly, it would obviously discourage pollution. Secondly, it would help to internalize externalities, forcing companies to pay the full price of their production processes – which would force them to put their prices up, meaning retailers would also have to, meaning people wouldn’t be able to afford as many consumer goods. Thirdly, it would massively reduce economic growth (which is only possible by externalizing costs and not counting things like pollution). Fourthly, it would raise funds for stage two.

Stage 2:
Before the harmful effects of recession kick in, implement an ecological investment package. This would be similar to a stimulus package in that it would aim to prevent unemployment, but of course it wouldn’t be trying to stimulate growth. Instead, the investments would be laying the foundation for our steady-state economy, while creating millions of jobs and opportunities for enterprise and innovation. The package would provide investments and grants for:

  • Public transport
  • A new smart electric grid
  • Renewable energy
  • Retrofitting buildings
  • Recycling plants
  • Parks, urban farms and green spaces
  • Pedestrianized city centres and plazas
  • Organic agriculture
  • Reforestation
  • Habitat conservation
  • Scholarships for environmental degrees
  • Green skills evening classes
  • Research into clean technologies, e.g. hydrogen power

Many of these investment areas would improve health and well-being, all of them would reduce our ecological impact and all of them would create jobs. Note that employees with a huge range of skill levels and types will be required: from scientists to construction labourers and from teachers to engineers. This should address the risk of unemployment. It would also harbour the growth of many new green businesses. But crucially, many of the investments will not be productive in conventional terms, or will only be productive in the long term. This should mean that although employment will be high, growth should be slow.

Stage 3:
However, there’s no telling how people will spend their wages. If people still spend all their disposable income on consumer goods then our sustainability gains will be negligible. There’s two ways of reducing consumption, and I recommend we use both simultaneously:

Limit throughput:
The pollution taxes will already be reducing consumption to an extent, as super-cheap disposable products will be increasingly unavailable. A few more policies could help speed up this trend:

  • A tax on the use of virgin raw materials which can be recycled, such as paper, plastic and aluminium. This would boost recycling, reduce resource-intensity of products and gather funds for future investment.
  • Stricter controls on advertising could help to reduce demand for consumer goods. As a start, advertising to children should be banned.
  • Some kind of limit could be placed on the import of consumer goods, to prevent the risk of being green at home but outsourcing all our dirty industry, pollution and resource use. Maybe a ceiling could be set and then companies could buy import rights in a kind of auction.
  • Tighter product standards, where goods are expected to be durable and repairable. Better quality products without built-in obsolescence would reduce demand, as they would last longer and could be repaired.
  • Encourage labour intensive but low-carbon services to fill needs rather than products. E.g. massages over cosmetics, gigs over video games… Could be done by offering tax breaks to service companies, or start-up grants, possibly.

Improve Equality:
The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett show that more equal societies perform better across a range of health and social factors: they have better literacy and life expectancy, and they have less crime, less teenage pregnancy and less obesity. In addition, more equal societies are less consumerist. This is because in unequal societies, envy and competition lead to the increased consumption of status goods (such as flashy cars and designer clothes). Poverty and wealth are always relative; people compare themselves to others in their society. If some are excessively rich, everyone aspires to that materialistic bench mark. For these twin reasons, a steady state aims to be more equal. Note: I am not suggesting a totally equal society. All jobs having the same salaries just wouldn’t make sense. What I am suggesting, is that the gap between rich and poor should be narrowed. This could be done by several policies:

  • Phase out fractional reserve banking and the interest function of money. Is it really fair that people be paid just for being rich? The interest function deepens inequality by distributing wealth to those who already have it. Fractional reserve banking allows banks to create money out of thin air and locks us into cycles of debt that can’t be repaid even with economic growth, let alone without it. Dietz and O’Neill suggest we phase out fractional reserve banking until eventually banks can’t loan money unless they literally have the funds to do so.
  • Progressive income taxes, used to fund extensive public services such as healthcare, education, libraries and museums, incapacity benefits, child and elder care. These would help to ‘’level the playing field’’. I think eventually we should have free university education for those who have the right A Levels and pass an interview.
  • As outlined in Enough is Enough, pay ratios could be used to reduce inequality. If a company had a pay ratio of 1:80 this would mean the CEO couldn’t be paid more than 80 times the salary of the lowest-paid employee, probably a cleaner. More transparency in business would pressure companies to publish their pay ratios, as well as their bonuses.

~

With these three stages, I think it would be possible to get past the dilemma of growth.

There’s undoubtedly going to be a large element of creative destruction with this transition. Some companies won’t adjust quickly enough and will go bankrupt. But that’s okay, as long as there are other innovative companies rising from the ashes. The steady-state economy is people centred. It’s not the companies that are important, but the people behind them – what we’re trying to avoid is unemployment. If people lose their jobs because their employer has gone under, that’s okay as long as there are other new job opportunities open to them. It’s only a problem if there aren’t enough jobs to go round or if companies can’t afford to employ the workers they need.

Persuading politicians to undertake this strategy is the subject of future posts, because that’s where the role of individuals, the media, NGOS and businesses come in.

Until next time!

 

Recommended reading:

Dietz, R and O’Neill, D. (2013) Enough is Enough. London and New York: Routledge.

Jackson, T. (2009). Prosperity Without Growth. London: Earthscan.

Wilkinson, R. and Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level. London: Penguin Books.

On Naivety and Homelessness

My recent backpacking trip had many high points: swimming in the Portuguese sea, enjoying wine in the sun, seeing the Notre Dame… Low points included missing trains, paying through the nose for last minute accommodation, living on crisps and running out of money. But by far the worst experience I had while abroad was seeing a woman and her two little boys living on the street in Paris.

Trying to hold back tears, I smiled weakly as my boyfriend asked me why I was suddenly so moody.
“Sorry honey, but I’m just a bit shocked to see two young children living on the street!”
Holding my hand, he replied “Tegan, they’re hardly the only ones”.
That didn’t really comfort me at all.

I’ve always thought homelessness is a big issue, and I hate the way people tend to ignore it, or assume homeless people are to blame for getting into ”that state”. Even if someone has an addiction, that hardly means they want to sleep on the pavement all year round! In the UK it’s a really big social problem, and I think the government should be doing more to deal with it.

In the town where I grew up there was a group of people locally dubbed ”the brew crew” or ”the bench crew” because they appeared to be homeless alcoholics who spent their days sitting on street benches drinking special brew or occasionally shouting at each other. But in over ten years, I never saw any of them sleeping on the street. They clearly had somewhere to go at night: a squat, a caravan, a friend’s sofa. So I was a bit shocked when I moved to the city and saw dozens of men and a few women sleeping in doorways in all weather.

I think that’s bad enough, but before this week I’d never seen homeless kids sleeping on the pavement. Actually, I was at first glance naive enough to assume this woman and her children were simply resting on their way somewhere. It wasn’t until a few moments later that the truth dawned on me. For a split second I looked into the eyes of this small boy who was calmly lying on his stomach on his mum’s sleeping bag, watching the Parisians and tourists stroll by. He wasn’t much older than my 3 year old brother.

As my boyfriend reminded me, I’m well aware there are plenty of kids living rough all around the world. But firstly, there’s a huge difference between knowing a sad statistic and seeing a real family living that life with your own eyes for the first time. Secondly, I didn’t expect to see it in a rich western country such as France.
I still have no idea why the Paris city council didn’t give that woman somewhere to live. Having two young children and nowhere to go should put you right to the top of any waiting list. The family looked Indian. Of course they could have been French citizens from Indian descent, or they could have recently moved to France. Either way, they still needed somewhere to live.

I think the sight was particularly shocking because it was in such a posh part of Paris. It was hardly a ghetto or a backstreet of New Deli. This family were surrounded by rich Parisian businesspeople sipping overpriced espresso.
My first feeling was bemusement as to why they thought the pavement was a good place to rest, then shock that actually they were clearly living there, then sadness that these little boys wouldn’t be able to fit in with ordinary kids they’re own age, and probably weren’t getting an education either. My next thought was disgust with all the rich onlookers – surely largely parents – who did nothing.
Then I quickly realised that I had myself walked past on my 3 hour trek to the Eifel Tower without helping them.

I felt sick.

 

Not my image!

Population: The Elephant In The Room

Not my image!

Not my image!

“The elephant in the room” is a funny phrase because if there was an elephant in your room, you’d definitely talk about it. Pretty loudly, I’m willing to guess. If there were two elephants, there’s absolutely no chance the issue would be ignored.

And yet many people continue to ignore population growth and consumption growth.

Population growth hits the multiply button on every single environmental problem we face. The Earth simply cannot sustain 7 billion people at a Western level of consumption. We’ve all heard the statistic that if everyone lived like the average American we’d need five to six planets. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we’ve only got one to work with!!

I’ve written lots on Earth Baby already about consumption, but even I’ve shied away from the population issue a bit.
Not really intentionally, but it’s more a case of thinking (rightly) that I don’t have a right to lecture about how many babies people should have. Of course I don’t. I’m a British 19 year old young woman who isn’t planning to have children for several years. I may care for the world as a whole perhaps more than many of my peers, and I try hard to educate myself about other cultures as well as environmental, political, economic and social issues…

But the fact remains that I’ve never been outside Europe. So how can I really know what’s going on in the rest of the world?
What do I know about women in India and Ethiopia struggling with poverty and motherhood?

Well, just slightly more than nothing thanks to this brilliant documentary called Mother: Caring for 7 Billion.
It’s free to stream, please take an hour of your life and watch it.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdEspxlq3bo&feature=youtu.be]

It raises lots of issues but it provides answers as well. according to this film, population growth is best dealt with by educating women, raising their status in societies, reducing poverty… All things that are good in their own rights as well. Safe and effective family planning coupled with a shift in attitudes.

I didn’t catch her name, but I found one young woman in the film particularly inspiring.
She lives in a village in Ethiopia with her large family, who are very poor. Her mother married her father at the age of twelve and had many children. This young woman started listening to a radio drama about family planning produced by the Population Media Centre and it had a profound effect on her. She encouraged her mother to use the pill as they couldn’t afford to eat more than one meal a day, let alone support any more children, but her father was dubious. She refused her arranged marriage, even though the man was rich. Her younger sister died of AIDS five months after having a baby daughter. After this tragedy, she became like  a second mother for her niece.  She works full time in a family planning centre and supports her family, while going to school on the weekends. When she comes home from work she helps with household chores and childcare, before doing her schoolwork late at night. All her brothers and sisters look up to her and her father has completely changed his attitude. He regrets arranging marriages for his other daughters and is very proud of her. She even gives advice to the other children in the village, who admire her strength and purpose.

What an extraordinarily strong and inspiring woman, to go through so much hardship and still create positive change. All my own “problems” are suddenly put into perspective!

I really can’t recommend this film enough, it’s realistic as well as incredibly touching.

It's all about Google Images.

A Slice of Hope

It’s easy to get bogged down with the enormity of the problems that taunt humanity in the 21st century. Climate change, environmental degradation,  resource scarcity, species loss, pollution, environmental injustice, animal suffering, poverty, hunger, human rights violations, inequality, discrimination  corrupt governments, economic recession… The list goes on.

But over the last couple of days I’ve come across a couple of ideas that really lend weight to the “it’s all gonna be okay” dialogue.

Firstly, this newspaper article by The Guardian claimed that if everyone ate a plant-based diet, we’d be able to feed 9 billion people. Today we have 7 billion people but 925 million go hungry*. To be honest I think it’s a shocking waste that all this perfectly good food is fed to cows and other livestock just so people can eat meat. Within the article it says:

Vegfam, which funds sustainable plant food projects, estimates that a 10-acre farm can support 60 people by growing soybeans, 24 people by growing wheat or 10 people by growing maize – but only two by raising cattle.

People tend to get very upset when I start talking about this kind of stuff, and I’m well aware that it pushes many buttons regarding free-will and personal choice for meat eaters. I don’t want to alienate any of you lovely readers, but I will just say this: don’t you think all this seems highly inefficient? In a world where so many children are starving to death every day, shouldn’t we be going for the sixty people per farm rather than the two? There, I’m done.

It's all about Google Images.

It’s all about Google Images.

More positively, I actually took this as a huge piece of good news. I’ve often heard people sigh and say ‘‘well the planet just can’t support this many people…” But this suggests that in terms of food at least, it actually can. I think the idea that there is actually enough food for everyone is greatly encouraging! It’s backed up by www.worldhunger.org as well.

The other thing I found out about was this dude’s TED talk about reversing desertification. Basically he reckons that desert-like areas in Africa and America can be brought back to fertile grasslands not by reducing grazing as ecologists thought, but by changing grazing patterns to mimic nature. Allen Savory says that in wild savannas, buffalo and other grazing mammals wander over vast areas in huge herds. They graze the grass continuously but over a huge area, so no one part gets overly trampled or over-grazed and all of it gets manured. He says it’s only when humans make their cattle and goats graze in small enclosed areas that they are forced to overgraze. The bare soil is vulnerable to wind and rain erosion and the land gets degraded.

www.savoryinstitute.com. Photo by David Nicola.

www.savoryinstitute.com. Photo by David Nicola.

Crucially, vegetation also takes carbon out of the air and locks it up in the biosphere. Allen suggests that desertification (a huge loss of vegetation occurring over 2/3 of the global landmass) is a huge contributor to climate change. He’s been working on this natural grazing method throughout 5 continents and has had some stunning results. There are some impressive pictures in his video, linked above.

The really exciting thing here is this: he says climatologists have estimated that if his method was carried out on all desertified land, atmospheric CO2 would be brought down to pre-industrial levels!

The transformation of the land is also hugely beneficial to local people who can make a living from their land again, and of course for biodiversity as well.

These two little discoveries may not be accurate. I have no guarantee that either of these people  are actually right. But they might be. And just take a moment to fully imagine how great it would be, if we  totally reversed climate change and eradicated world hunger…?

Those two achievements would really go down in the history books.
They’d be right up there with abolishing slavery and women getting the vote.

They’d make me proud to be human.

~

* Statistic from www.worldhunger.org

The Great Green Wall

The Great Green Wall is a long term project in Africa that involves planting a huge ‘wall’ or trees along the Southern edge of the Sahara desert. The picture below is a bit blurry in terms of the key, but you can clearly see the sandy colour representing the desert region and the emerald green line symbolizing the proposed wall.

The wall of trees would be 4,300 miles long and 9 miles thick, so it would essentially be a long thin forest. Encouragingly, Senegal is really keen on the project and has already planted 50,000 trees (The Guardian, 2012). However the Great Green Wall would need to touch 11 countries so co-operation on a massive scale is necessary here, which can pose a challenge when tensions are high due to a lack of resources.

What’s really cool though is the African governments and the local groups involved are really psyched for this to be a multi-faceted project. Not only will the trees hold the top soil in place with their roots, mulch it with their leaves and physically block encroaching sand, they’ll have other productive benefits as well. Native trees of different species are going to be used, with many of them producing food and medicines that the people of the Sahel region can benefit from. As the trees mature into a resilient forest ecosystem, animals and other plants will be supported and the biodiversity of the region will be increased. The trees will also, when they’re mature, help to recharge the water table and stabilize weird weather patterns. Due to all of this, it’s being talked about as a huge poverty-alleviating developmental scheme as well as a tactic for holding back desertification.

Just for clarification, the Great Green Wall is planned for the border between the Sahara desert in the North of Africa and the Sahel region below it. The Sahel is the huge savannah and semi-arid shrubland that spans many countries and is above the tropical region in the South of Africa, which is over the Equator. I’m only saying this because I wasn’t too clear on the geography before I researched it for a new essay.

There are people from many different tribes and nations living in the Sahel region, and the population has been on the rise in recent years. The fertile land in this area is rapidly turning into desert, sometimes due to overgrazing and sometimes due to drought. This is understandably escalating poverty, hunger, the further degrading of land and conflicts over land and resources.

The Great Green Wall is an ambitious but well thought-out strategy for dealing with many different issues at once. This is the kind of systems thinking we need! The main challenge is the great deal of international co-operation that is needed. I first heard about it at least a year ago and it seems to be getting under way now, but as trees take ages to grow and people take ages to sort things out, this will be a very long term achievement. The World Bank have allegedly put 1.8 billion dollars towards this so it seems on the way to success. I just hope all the nations involved can see how brilliant it is!

Go trees!

Resources:

http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/expanding-desert-falling-water-tables-and-toxic-pollutants-driving-people-from-their-homes.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jul/12/senegal-great-green-wall

Picture credit: http://www.luxecoliving.com/the-great-green-wall-vs-the-great-sahara-desert/