söndag 19 april 2015

Books I've read (February)

This blog post concerns the books I read in February. The theme that unites these books is that they are all part of the Worldwatch Institute's series of "State of the World" books. I regularly write about books that I have read on the blog and here is the previous blog post. The asterisks below represent the number of quotes from the book that can be found further below.

The Worldwatch institute was formed in 1974 by Lester Brown and they have published State of the World reports since 1984. "The series attempts to identify the planet's most significant environmental challenges". Each of the reports (books) has a theme and since I bought the three books below, three new books have been published in this series: the 2013 report "Is Sustainability Still Possible?", the 2014 report "Governing for Sustainability" and the 2015 report "Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability". I didn't fully realise that each book would have a specific distinct theme when I bought State of the World 2010, 2011 and 2012 at the same time. If I buy more of these, I will probably be more discerning and choose books based on their themes. I'd have to say I found the 2011 report less interesting than the other two and that my favourite was the 2010 report. All in all, the books are excellently sourced, backing up their claims by referring to published research literature in the area. I find it curious that almost all of the numerous authors in these books are unknown to me. I guess many of them are activists or working for NGOs rather than academics and researchers at universities. Each books consists of around 15-20 chapters and despite being less than 200 pages each, they are also very compact and fact-filled so it's an effort to read 25 pages per day (which is my regular book-reading pace). 

**************** Beside the two editors, "State of the World 2010: Transforming cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability" also has a project director, Erik Assadourian. It is hard to understand the role of the project director in relation to the editors. I actually met Erik - the project director - at the "3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity" that I attended 2.5 years ago. He gave a keynote that was good and we also ended up in the same group of people having dinner together. In his keynote, he showcased the "Catan: oil springs" expansion for the game Settlers of Catan that Erik had co-designed. The expansion "was developed by the Transforming Cultures Project of the Worldwatch Institute for the purpose of creating awareness about the effects that the usage of oil has on the environment". Erik also wrote the very hard-hitting introduction to the book, "The rise and fall of consumer cultures".

The scope of the book is very comprehensive and as it is a book about "cultures" and cultural transformations - which are large topics. The book is divided into six parts and the first part, "Traditions old and new" consists of five chapters treating religions, rituals and taboos, childbearing, elders and agriculture. The other five parts of the book treats education, business, government, media and social movements. From the back cover of the book:

"Many of the environmental and social problems we face today are symptoms of a deeper systemic failing: a dominant cultural paradigm that encourages living in ways that are often directly counter to the realities of a finit planet. This paradigm, typically referred to as 'consumerism,' has already spread to cultures around the world and has let to consumption levels that are vastly unsustainable. If this pattern spreads further there will be little possibility of solving climate change or other environmental problems that are poised to dramatically disrupt human civilization. It will take a sustained, long-term effort to redirect the traditions, social movements and institutions that shape consumer cultures towards becoming cultures of sustainability. ... Bringing about a cultural shift that makes living sustainably as 'natural' as a consumer lifestyle is today will not only address urgent crises like climate change, it could also tackle other symptoms like extreme income inequality, obesity and social isolation that are not typically seen as environmental problems."

************ "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" looks at food production with an emphasis on the rural population in poor, typically African countries. It is very impressive to realise that many of the authors either live or have travelled extensively in these countries. Many have also worked with a number of different practical projects. The authors are thus people who are in the known compared to us armchair scientists sitting in our comfortable armchairs and having an absolute belief in our "solutions" to what ails the world (e.g. a black-and-white picture of ecological vs industrial agriculture). The issue of food turns out to be very complicated the more you know about it. We usually only think of food in terms of quantity (sufficiency) and its opposite - famine. After having read this book I however understand that there are many more factors that are important, including land ownership, power, corruption, the status of women, education, the quality of storage facilities and access to markets (including basic transportation infrastructures), cultural preference and habits, nutritional value of different seeds, hunger, farmers' views of risks vs rewards (you are very conservative and risk-aversive is you are responsible for feeding your family and there is little surplus), the individual vs the collective, urban farming and so on. Despite my new understanding of the complexity of the issues, this is not a topic I know a lot about and not something I plan to become an expert in so while useful as a primer, the book was not of a particular interest to me. From the back cover:

"The world's food system has come to a crossroads. Nearly half a century after the Green Revolution, people are still chronically hungry. At the same time, investments in agricultural developments by governments, international lenders, and foundations are at historical lows. Over the last two years, the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet team has traveled to 25 sub-Saharan African nations - the places where the hunger is greatest and rural communities have struggled the most - and uncovered a rich and diverse treasure trove of innovations from farmers' groups, private voluntary organizations, universities, and even agribusiness companies. What's more, there are global lessons and benefits to be gleaned from Africa - from the continent's role in preventing disastrous climate change to the way urban farmers are feeding people in cities"

*************** "State of the World 2012: Moving towards sustainable prosperity" is a little all over the place, treating topics such as increasing inequality, governance, the greening of the economy, how businesses operate, on the balance between shareholder vs societal interests etc. Erik Assadourian was again one of the two project directors and he wrote a great chapter in the book, "The path to degrowth in overdeveloped countries". The book was however very focused on the then-upcoming Rio+20 meeting so despite being only a few years old, the book unfortunately already felt partly dated. From the back cover:

"In 1992, governments at the Rio Earth Summit made a historic commitment met sustainable development - an economic system that promotes the health of both people and ecosystems. Twenty years and several summits later, human civilization has never been closer to ecological collapse, one third of humanity lives in poverty, and another 2 billion people are projected to join the human race over the next 40 years. How will we move toward sustainable prosperity equitably shared among all even as our population grows, our cities strain to accommodate more and more people, and our ecological systems decline? To promote discussion around this vital topic at the Rio+20 U.N. Conference and beyond, State of the World 2012 ... showcases innovative projects, creative policies, and fresh approaches that are advancing sustainable development in the twenty-first century."


----- On consumer culture as "natural" but unsustainable  -----

"Human beings are embedded in cultural systems, are shaped and constrained by their cultures, and for the most part act only within the cultural realities of their lives. The cultural norms, symbols, values, and traditions a person grows up with become "natural." Thus, asking people who live in consumer cultures to curb consumption is akin to asking them to stop breathing - they can do it for a moment, but then, gasping, they will inhale again. Driving cars, flying in planes, having large homes, using air conditioning ... these are not decadent choices but simply natural parts of life - at least according to the cultural norms present in a growing number of consumer cultures in the world. Yet ... these patterns are neither sustainable nor innate manifestations of human nature. ... Preventing the collapse of human civilization requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism - the cultural orientation that leads people to find meaning, contentment, and acceptance through what they consume"
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.3

----- On the human footprint vs sustainable levels of resource consumption  -----

"it is the rich who have the largest homes, drive cars, jet around the world, use large amounts of electricity, eat more meat and processed foods, and buy more stuff - all of which has significant ecological impact. Granted, higher incomes do not always equate with increase consumption, but where consumerism is the cultural norm, the odds of consuming more go up when people have more money, even for ecologically conscious consumers. ... Indeed, if everyone lived like Americans, Earth could sustain only 1.4 billion people. ... But even at middle-income levels - the equivalent of what people in Jordan and Thailand earn on average today - Earth can sustain fewer people than are alive today. These numbers convey a reality that few want to confront: in today's world of 6.8 billion, modern consumption patterns - even at relatively basic levels - are not sustainable."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.6

----- On leverage points for changing a (cultural) system  -----

"In an analysis on places to intervene in a system, Donella Meadows explained that the most effective leverage point for changing a system is to change the paradigm of the system - that is to say, the shared ideas or basic assumptions around which the system functions. In the case of the consumerism paradigm, the assumptions that need to change include that more stuff makes people happier, that perpetual growth is good, that humans are separate from nature, and that nature is a stock of resources to be exploited for human purpose. ... Yes, altering a system's rules (with legislation, for instance) or its flow rates (with taxes or subsidies) can change a system too, but not as fundamentally. These will typically produce only incremental changes. Today more systemic change is needed.
Just as a consumerism paradigm encourages people to define their well-being through their consumption patterns, a sustainability paradigm would work to find an alternative set of aspirations and reinforce this through cultural institutions and drivers. ... It should become "natural" to find value and meaning in life through how much a person helps restore the planet rather than how much that individual earns, how large a home is, or how many gadgets someone has."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.16

----- On creating modern rituals to decrease flying  -----

"Peter Sawtell, a minister in Colorado ... explores the link between spirituality and environmentalism. He has proposed that long-distance travel, especially flying, become a ritualized experience, with the Muslim ritual of the Hajj - the once-in-a-lifeime pilgrimage to Mecca - being the gold-standard model. ... while a once-in-a-lifetime trip may be too strict a standard for most people, Sawtell suggests that once a decade or "once a life-stage" (adolescence, adulthood, retirement) might be helpful in thinking about long-distance travel. In the process, he suggests, people may find that less is more: they might appreciate travel and use it more meaningfully than when it was cheap and the environmental impact was ignored."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.35

----- On globalization being a one-way street, shifting values from us to them but never the other way  -----

"One negative consequence of globalization is that western individualistic, consumer-oriented, youth-focused values - communicated through multiple international and national media and institutional channels - are undermining positive traditions and values of more collectivist sociocultural systems. In many cases, these traditions and values provide the basis for the society's sustainable use and development of both natural and human resources. ... In western individualist societies ... attitudes toward elders are generally tainted by negative images of ageing. Within the globalization of culture, increasingly ageist attitudes are being disseminated and slowly permeating non-western cultures as well. ... Globalizaiton involves a virtually one-way dissemination of western cultural images and values toward non-western societies."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.41-43

----- On improving the capacity of the land to produce as a worthy goal  -----

"Twentieth-century agriculture has badly degraded nearly every ecosystem it has encountered while consuming roughly 20 percent of world energy production. The style called "conventional" depends for nearly all of its workings on a dwindling and increasingly expensive supply of fossil fuels. Sustainable agriculture, in contrast, can be pursued indefinitely because it does not degrade or deplete the resources that it needs to continue. Since most of Earth's arable land is already under cultivation and human populations are continuing to expand, an even better goal would be to actually improve the capacity of the land to produce."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.50

----- On creative play as an anti-capitalist/countercultural activity?  -----

"Among the most troubling ramifications of allowing marketers unfettered access to children is the erosion of creative play, which is central to healthy development. ... Babies are born with an innate capacity to play. When commercial interests dominate a culture, however, nurturing creative play can become countercultural: it is a threat to corporate profits. Children who play creatively are not as dependent on consumer goods for having fun. Their playfulness, as well as their capacity for joy and engagement, rests mainly within themselves and what they bring to the world rather than what the world brings to them."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.62-63

----- A worthy goal for us educators  -----

"The scientific evidence suggests that the years ahead will test coming generations in extraordinary ways. Educators are obliged to tell the truth about such things but then to convert the anxiety that often accompanies increased awareness of danger to positive energy that can generate constructive changes. Environmental education must be an exercise in applied hope that equips young people with the skills, aptitudes, analytic wherewithal, creativity, and stamina to dream, act, and lead heroically. To be effective on a significant scale, however, the creative energies of the rising generation must be joined with strong and bold institutional leadership to catalyse a future better than the one in prospect."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.82

----- Our institutions and laws are still adapted to a 19th century "empty" world  -----

"Today's dominant worldviews and institutions emerged during the early Industrial Revolution, when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure. Natural resources were abundant, social settlements were more sparse, and the main limit on improving human well-being was inadequate access to infrastructure and consumer goods. Current ideas about what is desirable and what is possible were forged in this empty-world context [but] the world has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. It is now a "full" world, where increasingly complex technologies and institutions, mounting resource constraints, and a decreasing energy return on investment have made human society more brittle - and hence more susceptible to collapse. Laws and policies that incorporate the empty-world vision are legion. The 1872 Mining Act in the United States, for example, was designed to promote minerals mining and economic growth. It did this by essentially giving away the right to mine on public lands while collecting no royalties and requiring no environmental protection. The act is still in force, even though conditions have changed dramatically. The consequence has been massive environmental destruction and a giveaway of public wealth to private interests.
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.85

----- On Scandinavia leading the way towards a more sustainable world  -----

"The ecological capacity of Earth is not expanding, while humanity's footprint is. ... The challenge in terms of our fixation on growth is how to get started on a new course. Obviously nobody can expect the Chinese or the Indians to take the initiative on non-growth thinking. At the moment, it looks rather unlikely that any major industrial country will lead the way. But maybe a rich, well-educated country could - a country like Norway or Sweden. With a small population and ample resources, perhaps Scandinavia could lead the way and demonstrate the feasibility of a vision of what the good life in a steady state economy would look like: less hours worked, less stuff, less stress, more time with family and friends, more time for civic engagement, more leisure. It will not be easy, but it is necessary."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.87

Comment: The text above is written by Øystein Dahle, ex-vice president of Esso Norway from 1985 to 1995.

----- On time as a substitute for natural resources and vice versa  -----

"to a great extent, time and natural resources are substitutes for each other: doing things faster usually takes a greater toll on Earth. So time-stressed households and societies tend to have heavier ecological footprints and greater per capita energy use. In the transition to sustainable cultures and economies, people are going to have to adapt to new schedules and temporal rhythms. The culture of long working hours and excessive busy-ness that characterizes a number of wealthy countries will need to be replaced by more sustainable patterns of time use."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.91

----- On "choice editing" (ex. nudging) vs product labels  -----

"he asks "why should the consumer be the one left in the supermarket aisle to agonize over complex issues such as animal welfare, carbon footprints, workers' rights and excessive packaging, often without any meaningful data on the label to inform their decision-making?' Why, in other words, don't producers and governments shift their current choice-editing practices so that consumers choose only among a range of environmentally "good" products? ... Product labelling is an important component in the transformation of consumer societies into sustainable ones. Yet experience suggests that when product information is made available ... it influences no more than a minority of shoppers - and not nearly enough, not fast enough, and consistently enough to drive the transformation of consumer life required by a planet under stress."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.123

----- On reasons for dying  -----

"The major contributors to global mortality today are for the most part preventable. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), childhood and maternal malnutrition cause an estimated 200 million "years of life lost" annually, followed by physical inactivity and obesity (150 million years), unsafe sex (80 million years), and tobacco (50 million years). A study of the "actually causes of death" in the United states in 2000 lists tobacco as the number one killer, with poor diet and physical inactivity coming in a close second. ... The two principal therapies in medicine's black bag - surgery and pharmacy - are largely irrelevant to the new disorders of ageing and poor lifestyle choices. ... From a financial perspective, prevention pays poorly, while sickness pays."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p. 138-139

----- On nature (not) having any rights  -----

"most contemporary legal systems do not recognize that any indigenous inhabitants other than humans are capable of having rights. The law defines land, water, other species, and even genetic material and information as "property," which entrenches an exploitative relationship between the owner (a legal subject with rights) and the property (legally speaking a "thing" incapable of holding rights). ... current legal systems are designed to perpetuate human domination of nature instead of fostering mutually beneficial relationships between humans and other members of the Earth community. ... In fact, environmental laws mainly regulate how quickly natural communities are destroyed rather then preventing the destruction."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p. 144-146

----- On the gap between knowing and doing  -----

"Moving beyond facts and information alone is critical because when it comes to taking action, humans tend not to be rational actors. In the wake of the 1970s energy crisis, researcher Scott Geller demonstrated this when he exposed research participants to three hours of slide shows, lectures, and other educational materials about residential energy consumption. The result? Participants were more aware of energy issues, understood more about how they could save energy in their homes, but failed to change their behavior."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p. 154-155

----- A definition of ecovillages  -----

"The commonly accepted definition of ecovillages, provided in 1991 by [...] Robert Gilman, is "human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.""

L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.185

----- On producing more food but having more hunger at the same time  -----

"We live in a world in which we produce more food than ever before and in which the hungry have never been as many. There is a reason for this: for too many years we have focused on increasing food availability while neglecting both the distributional impacts of food production and their long-term environmental impacts. We have succeeded, remarkably, in increasing yields. But we must now realize that we can produce more and yet fail to tackle hunger at the same time ... In agricultural and food policies ... we realize how fragile our current food systems are. As a result of both demographic growth and a lack of investment in agriculture in a number of developing countries, particularly i sub-Saharan Africa, many countries' dependence on international markets has increased significantly. That represent a heavy burden, particularly when prices spike as a result of speculative bubbles forming on the markets for agricultural commodities - and especially since higher food bills are typically combined with higher prices for oil."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.xvii-xviii

----- On the effects of the Green Revolution  -----

"we now understand that increasing the production of food and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are two very different objectives - complementary perhaps, but not necessarily linked. It took a generation to understand that the "Green Revolution" package of irrigation, mechanization, high-yielding seed varieties, and chemical fertilizers may have to be fundamentally revised in order to be more sustainable, both socially and environmentally. ... The Green Revolution did not reach the poorest farmers working on the most marginal soils. It largely bypassed women, because women had less access to credit than men, received less support from extension services, and could not afford the inputs on which the technological revolution was based. It sometimes locked cash-strapped farmers into a dependence on high-value external inputs. It switched from labor-intensive forms of production to a capital-intensive agricultural model, accelerating rural flight in the absence of alternative jobs."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.xviii

----- On ecological vs industrial farming in the rest of the world  -----

"The debate on whether agroecological production practice in ecoagriculture landscapes will be able to meet the entire global food demand is misplaces. ... Globally, only a minority of agricultural lands are in large contiguous areas of intensive, high-yield monocultures on the industrial model, though these account for a large share of total production and international trade. A majority of farms are in mosaic landscapes with considerable opportunity to use uncultivated areas for conservation purposes and to help farming communities sustain or restore ecosystem values while increasing agricultural yields and achieving broader rural development goals. Moreover, only 10 percent of the world's food production enters international trade. ... domestic production for domestic consumption will still ... remain dominant in terms of land area and total output, especially in low-income countries with large rural populations. Thus most countries will need to learn how to grow more food while doing better at protecting ecosystem services and sustaining rural communities.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.23

----- On staple crops vs vegetables  -----

"the sad fact is that while Africa may be adequately fed by staple crops, it will not be nourished until diets improve. Otherwise, millions of people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will remain vulnerable to ailments that compromise their mental and physical fitness. Worldwide, diseases related to imbalanced diets, especially insufficient vegetable and fruit consumption, cause 2.7 million deaths annually and are among the top mortality risk factors ... Staple crops, with their long cropping cycles, tend to be more vulnerable to environmental threats and the risk of crop failure. In contrast, vegetable crop species have shorter cycles, are faster growing, require little space, and thus are very dependable. ... Vegetables are the sustainable solution for a diversified and balanced diet."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.28

----- On food self-sufficiently and food security  -----

"One strategy put forth for water-stressed countries is that they should import water indirectly through grain to help balance their water budgets and meet their food needs. On average it takes about 1,500 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, so it can make sense for water-scarce countries to import more of their staple foods and save their water for manufacturing and other higher-valued enterprises. But for poor, food-importing countries, this is a risky proposition. Most cannot afford the imports, and even if they can, the imported grains rarely make their way to the table of the hungry. One of the most important lessons of the last half-century of global agriculture is that food security rarely trickles down to the very poor. Moreover, the food riots that erupted in Senegal, Mauritania, Haiti, and some half-dozen other countries as grain prices soared in 2007 and 2008 are likely a harbinger of what is to come. With global grain and oil markets increasingly uncertain, a degree of food self-sufficiency may be crucial for food security."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.47

----- On the connection between fuel, food and fertilizer  -----

"The world has now used up all its cheap energy ... The problem here is that most of the price of the nitrogen in a bag of fertilizer - and nitrogen is the element that African farmers most need - pays for the energy required to turn that nitrogen into fertilizer. Thus when energy prices rise, the price of the chemical fertilizer most needed in Africa also rises. And at today's prices, nitrogen-based fertilizer is no longer feasible for Africa's small-scale producers of basic grains. Farmers who spend $40 on chemical fertilizer will probably not increase their harvest of basic grains by even $35. As an investment, fertilizer no longer pays. So within the next year or two, the vast majority of Africa's subsistence farmers who use chemical fertilizer will have to give it up, which will cause a one-time drop in productivity of anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.61

----- On the failure of traditional agricultural methods to cope with impoverished fields  -----

"Throughout Mali, farmers 20 years ago routinely fallowed their land for 10-15 years. Now ... they cannot fallow it more than 2 years. If they do, farmers without any productive land will ask for permission to farm the fallowed fields, claiming that the owners must no longer need them. In some countries, fights over land have erupted, sometimes resulting in deaths.
The villagers of Africa, as always, have a series of traditional coping mechanisms. One respons to soil infertility has always been to move somewhere else. Whole villages would pick up and move to a new site where the soils were more fertile. But the population explosion has pushed people onto most previously unpopulated lands. Except for small bits of forest, very little land is left in the subhumid and semiarid areas that is not in use. Even the forests are rapidly being converted to farmland."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.63

----- On the "unnatural" supply chains of the modern world  -----

"Both consumers and producers in Africa would be less vulnerable if they depended on the local market ... rather than the international market, conditioned by speculation and external interests. ... African supermarkets typically contain very few products that have been domestically produced. Instead, they sell products imported from Europe, the United States, Asia, and even South America: fresh and powdered milk, baguettes and mayonnaise, lettuce that has been flown thousands of kilometres. Even staples like rice or corn are sometimes imported and, incredibly, they usually cost less than the locally grown products. Yet the traditional products are almost always better from a nutritional perspective, as in the case with local grains like fonio in Senegal compared with white rice from Thailand. Meanwhile, poor-quality imported processed foods, heavy in salt, fat, and sugar, are unbalancing diets, particularly in the cities, and leading to health problems."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.79

----- On institutionalised food waste  -----

"cornucopian abundance ... has fostered a culture in which staggering levels of "deliberate" food waste are now accepted or even institutionalized. Waste is now an unfortunate - and unnecessary - corollary to wealthy nations' burgeoning food supplies. Throwing away cosmetically "imperfect" produce on farms, discarding edible fish at sea, disposing of breadcrusts in sandwich factories, overordering stock for supermarkets, and purchasing or cooking too much in the home are all examples of a profligate negligence toward food."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.99-100

----- On why poverty and hunger can not be reduced to agricultural yields  -----

"Too often, the issue of food security gets reduced to a sound bite to "feed 9 billion by 2050" that in turn is wrapped around a new and possibly genetically modified seed. But while magic bullets are enticing, they are far from a comprehensive solution. Indeed they amount to a simplistic, even misguided, approach if divorced from the larger context of agriculture: where and how the farmer gets seed and inputs and how much he or she pays for them; whether there is ample labor and equipment; whether timely extension advice is available; whether there are viable markets to sell the crop; whether prices are transparent; and whether, at the end the day, the farmers have made enough money to buy food and send their kids to school, and perhaps even to lift themselves out of poverty. A seed and a sound bite do not address these problems, nor will the single-minded aim of more production without attention to these details"
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.144

----- On low-tech vs high-tech solutions in African agriculture  -----

"It is striking how few of the development success stories described in this book depends to any significant degree on cutting-edge scientific and technological breakthroughs. Indeed, access to simple, low-cost, durable, easy-to-maintain tools and techniques to accomplish everyday tasks is a far more common ingredient in successful projects than cutting-edge technologies or system changes made possible by science breakthroughs.
GE [genetic engineering] technology and input-intensive systems generally focus one intervention on one problem, with the goal of keeping in check the damage caused by pests or problems arising from imbalances in a farming system. ... Western societies have been able and willing to contain and deal with such collateral damage through complex and costly regulatory programs and ongoing research and surveillance. Is it realistic to expect African and Asian countries to do the same?"
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.169-171

----- On why large companies have little incentive in solving the problems of poor small-scale farmers  -----

"Until recently, governments, universities, multilateral organizations, and other public institutions have set priorities and paid for most science and technology development in the area of agriculture and food systems. The private sector accepted a significant degree of dependence on and guidance from public institutions in pursuing food system R&D. The transition to private-sector dominance of agricultural R&D began in the 1970s, accelerated in the 1980s as the profit potential of genetic engineering came into focus, and was essentially compete by the turn of the century. ... Private companies are bound by law in most countries to maximize economic returns to their investors. It is a stretch for a major corporation to deliver the customary profit margin ... when the company is a partner in a development project serving the needs of small-scale farmers in poor regions of the world."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.170

----- Money wasn't made for the poor  -----

"The global consumer class, about a billion people or so, mostly lives in western industrial countries, but the last two decades have witnessed the emergence of growing numbers of high consumer in countries like China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia. Another 1-2 billion people globally aspire to the consumer life and may be able to acquire some of its trappings. But the remainder of humanity - including the "bottom of the pyramid," the most destitute - have little hope of ever achieving such a life. The global economy is not designed for their benefit. .. it would be a mistake to regard the steady expansion of the global consuption-intensive industrial economy as a surefire path toward overcoming poverty and social marginalization. ... In many cases, growth has been accompanied by increased inequality.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.5

----- On "the green economy"  -----

"While the term "green economy" has gained currency, its meaning is still up for interpretation among governments, corporations, and civil society groups. UNEP defines a green economy quite broadly as one that results in "improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive." UNEP argues that "the greening of economies need not be a drag on growth. On the contrary, the greening of economies has the potential to be a new engine of growth, a net generator of decent jobs, and a vital strategy to eliminate persistent poverty." The extent to which a green economy and economic growth are compatible is open to question, however. ... Making a difference in the quest for sustainability will require an absolute decoupling of economic performance and materials use.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.7-8

----- On productivity and (green) jobs  -----

"One problem with the current economy is that it relies too much on limited and polluting resources such as fossil fuels and too little on an abundant resource - people. While greater labor productivity has undoubtedly been an engine of progress over time, its single-minded pursuit is turning into a curse. From here on, progress requires a greater focus on energy, materials, and water productivity instead. Employment at adequate incomes is key to making an economy work for people, and therefore the transition to a green economy requires particular attention to good-quality jobs that contribute to preserving or restoring environmental quality."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.10-11

----- On the materials flow of the linear throwaway economy  -----

"At the base of the brown economy is the large-scale extraction of natural resources. Mining of ores and minerals grew a staggering 27-fold during the twentieth century, outstripping the rate of economic growth. Now that easily exploited deposits have largely been exhausted, environmental impacts of mining are bound to worsen. Already, about three times more rock and other material needs to be removed now than a century ago in order to extract the same quantity of ore. A throwaway economy means that waste streams keep expanding along with mining. ... More than 1 billion tons of metals, paper, rubber, plastics, glass, and other material are recycled each year. But that is only one tenth the amount of waste collected."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.16-17

----- On green growth vs more radical transformations of the global economy  -----

"society is so committed to growth that even many environmentalist and sustainable development experts still advocate for "green growth," or just the decoupling of growth from material consumption. As Harald Welzer, author of Mental infrastructures: How growth entered the world and our souls, notes, "The current debated on decoupling ... serves above all to maintain the illusion that we can make a sufficient number of minor adjustments in order to reduce the negative environmental consequences of economic growth while leaving our present system intact."
Indeed, when adding up all indirect and direct forms of consumption, in 2000 the average American used 88 kilograms of resources a day and the average European 43 kilograms a day - numbers that need to contract tremendously to be sustainable, especially in the context of growing consumption demands by developing countries."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.24-15

----- On the global transport sector energy use  -----

"Global transport sector energy use has been growing steadily by about 2-2.5 percent a year since 1970 and is forecast to grow even more quickly in the future. Although the average fuel economy of vehicle engines has improved over time, increases in average vehicle weight, vehicle kilometers traveled, and vehicle fleet size have all led to continued growth in the transport energy consumed and related social costs. In 1990 there were 500 million cars in the world; today there are nearly 800 million, and the IEA forecasts that by 2050 there will be between 2 billion and 3 billion. That means that for every car struck in traffic today there will be three or four in 2050. The additional energy use by the transport sector from such rapid growth in vehicles and vehicle activity would far outstrip any reductions from vehicle fuel efficiency improvements"
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.56-57

----- On the costs and the benefits of motorization  -----

"Without a good public transportation system, the urban poor are further marginalized by their location. This social exclusion affects many aspects of a city-dweller's life, including access to employment, health care, education, markets, and social and cultural events. ... Investments that increase car dependence tend to also increase average trip lengths and to put more jobs and opportunities out of reach of the poor. ... Today road accidents are the ninth leading cause of death worldwide, but by 2030 they are expected to be the fifth leading cause. ... Nearly half of these deaths will be of pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers. ... the costs of motorization are disproportionately borne by the poorest segments of society, even though these groups often have little or no access to the mobility benefits from motorization."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.58-59

----- On the primacy of shareholder values  -----

"By the early nineteenth century, two major innovations in corporate form emerged as the dominant architecture ... The dual forces of the joint stock and limited liability became the pillars of unprecedented growth in the size, complexity, and profitability of large corporations. The corporation as a remote, tradable asset held by anonymous investors decoupled from management, operations, and community took root. At the same time, labor as a factor of production akin to raw material whose cost should be minimized became deeply embedded in the world's surging industrial economies. These attributes put in place the defining characteristic of the modern corporation, namely the primacy of capital (that is, shareholder) interests. ... shareholder primacy created conditions that would spur many of the social movements that pitted the rights of capital against the rights of labor ... a central feature of advanced economies to this day."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.89

----- Due for later this year but don't hold your breath just yet  -----

"Imagine the following scenario: In 2015 ... an alliance of global business leaders forges an improbable coalition with civil society and labor organizations. ... the alliance steps forward to say: We are here to declare that business-as-usual is not an adequate response to the expectations, risks, and opportunities for corporations in the twenty-first century. We therefore are advocating a change in the rules governing corporations, a new social contract that recognizes that companies exist at the pleasure of citizens expressed through democratic government processes that provide the rule of law, the stability, and the physical and technological infrastructure upon which all companies depend. The mantra of shareholder value is antithetical to the core values of sustainable development, which is the only long-term pathway to build the prosperous companies and prosperous societies upon which our collective well-being depends. We commit to creating new global, national, and local governance mechanisms with the authority and resources to encourage and enforce a new generation of corporate accountability and adherence to a new set of principles for corporate design. These principles will provide the beacon for an emergent view of the corporation built on a partnership between people and the biosphere."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.93-94

----- On the ideal relationship between corporations and society  -----

"Corporation 20/20 ... has explored the challenges of repurposing and redesigning corporations. ... the network developed six Principles of Corporate Redesign as the pillars of its research, advocacy, and public communications. ...
Principle 1. The purpose of the corporation is to harness private interests to serve the public interest. Why does society create laws that allow corporations to exist? To serve the public interest, the paramount purpose of all democratic systems. The license to operate is not an entitlement; it is a privilege. It should be granted with terms and conditions aligned with the vision of a just and sustainable society and be subject to periodic review and renewal based on adherence to such vision. ... Where private and public interest conflict, the public interest must prevail. Principle 1 rejects the characterization of the corporation as an insular entity freely marketable without constraints and detached from the broader society in which it operates. Instead, it positions the corporation as inseparable from, and ultimately accountable to broader society interests."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.96

----- The case against pets  -----

"Today, the large population of dogs, cats, and other companion animals is having a serious impact on the world's environment. ... Just in terms of food, a large dog uses 0.36 global hectares of resources per year, a small dog 0.18, and a cat 0.13 hectares. For comparison, a person in Bangladesh uses on average 0.6 hectares of resources a year in total. ... an American dog owner typically spends anywhere from $4,000 to $100,000 on a dog over its lifetime. ... policymakers should recognize that pet ownership is a luxury and should make it costlier to own pets, perhaps through a steeper pet license fee or a tax on dog and cat food. ... there should be better oversight of the pet industry, which has an industry strategy of "humanizing" pet populations so that people will seek out pets to fill companion gaps and spend more on them. ... This may curb some pet purchases and may also reduce excessive purchases for current pets - whether that is extra food (many pets are overweight due to overfeeding), clothing, fancy toys, pet spa treatments, and end-of-life medical care that is more sophisticated than many people in developing countries have access to."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.124

----- On women's and men's varying preferences for how many children they want  -----

"men, free of the physical hazards and discomforts of child-bearing and usually investing much less time than women do in childrearing, tend in ost countries to want more children than their partners do. ... women in almost all developing countries express a desire for fewer children than they end up having, as well as fewer children than men want. The more children a woman has, the more likely she is to want fewer additional ones than her partner."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.125

----- On the proportion of retired vs working-age people in society  -----

"Higher proportions of older people in any population are a natural consequence of longer life spans and women's intentions to have fewer children, neither of which societies should want to reverse. The appropriate way to deal with population aging is to make necessary social adjustments, increasing labor participation and mobilizing older people themselves to contribute to such adjustments, for instance, rather than urging or offering incentives to women to have more children than they think best. Population aging is a short-term phenomenon that will pass before the end of this century, with impacts far less significant and long-lasting than ongoing population growth, a point policymakers need to understand better."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.127

----- On the need for going from empty-world to full-world economics  -----

"In pursuit of unending material growth, western society has increasingly favored institutions that promote the private sector over the public and commons sectors, capital accumulation by the few over asset building by the many, and finance over the production of real goods and services. ... This view of what "prosperity" means emerged when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure  Natural resources were abundant, social settlements were sparser, and inadequate access to infrastructure represented the main limit on improvements to human well-being. Much has changed in the last century, however. The human footprint has grown so large that in many cases real progress is constrained more by limits on the availability of natural resources and ecosystem services than by limits on build capital infrastructure."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.177

----- On what should be part of the commons  -----

"We need institutions that use an appropriate combination of private, state, and common property rights systems to establish clear property rights over ecosystems without privatizing them. One such category of institutions is the commons sector, which would be responsible for managing existing common assets and for creating new ones. Some assets should be held in common because it is more just; these include resources created by nature or by society as a whole - for example, a freshwater environment created by nature or common knowledge created by society. Others should be held in common because it is more efficient; these include nonrival resources for which price rationing creates artificial shortages (information) or rival resources (goods that are used up through consumption) that generate nonrival benefits, such as trees filtering water to make it drinkable. Others should be held in common because it is more sustainable; these include essential common pool resources and public goods such as clean air.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.180-181

torsdag 16 april 2015

Tools for sustaining not-for-profit grassroots sharing initiatives

After almost two months of work, we finally handed in an EU application earlier this week, "SHARE IT: Tools for sustaining not-for-profit grassroots sharing initiatives".

Our application is a response to the call "Collective Awareness for Sustainability and Social Innovations" (CAPS) and it is part of the much larger 2014-2020 EU Horizon 2020 research program. This call was particularly interesting for us, sprouting references to "collaborative consumption", "new collective models for value creation beyond monetisation", "sustainable behaviours and lifestyles", "bottom-up solutions grounded on real communities", "grassroots actors", "participatory innovation paradigms" as well as harnessing "open data, open source and open hardware" as well as "ICT networks, network effects and collective intelligence for cooperation, supporting new economic models beyond GDP". There really was no end to the long list of attractive terms and concepts in the invitation to write research grant applications. Beyond the stuff they wanted, there was also an interesting list about applications they did NOT want (capitals in original - see this downloadable powerpoint presentation):
   - Proposals without a clear existing (and physical) community of motivated users
   - Proposals that were technology-driven, or aiming at purely commercial solutions
   - Consortia without at least two partners which are focused on non-ICT disciplines

There are three research partners in our proposed project; Lancaster University (UK), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) and the think tank Demos Helsinki (Finland). The people who have been most involved with the application are Adrian Friday (Lancaster), Daniel Pargman, Elina Eriksson and Karin Bradley (KTH) and Airi Lampinen (Demos). KTH is one institution but two different schools (and departments) are involved in the application, my own School of Computer Science and Communication (CSC) as well as the School for the Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE). If the application is successful, we plan to hire a post-doc at KTH to work 100% in the project for either two years or for three years (which is the full duration of the project).

The project is divided into four different parts, called Work Packages (plus a fifth for management). They are all interconnected but still roughly correspond to empirical fieldwork (WP1), theoretical analysis (WP2), design and construction of a software platform (WP3) and requirements elicitation and evaluation of the platform (WP4). While any researcher might work in several of the work packages, Demos will be responsible for WP1, KTH ABE for WP2, Lancaster for WP3 and KTH CSC for WP4.

Except for the academic partners, we also have three project partners, i.e. grassroots initiatives that practice the sharing economy. These are Skjutsgruppen (ride sharing), Restaurant Day (pop-up temporary restaurants) and Hoffice (pop-up temporary workspaces) as well as an "impact partner", the OuiShare network. OuiShare do several things but the two things they do that is of most relevance to this project is that 1) they organise the OuiShare Fest, an an annual festival and conference that brings together people to celebrate and share knowledge of best practice and 2) the activities of the OuiShare Labs​, working with open source tools for sharing initiatives and sharing-related projects.

I think many parts of this project are exciting. We are very fortunate in that two of the applicants (Airi and Karin) already work in and have published scientific results about collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. That fact and their knowledge strengthens our application tremendously! The other three main applicants (me, Adrian, Elina) on the other hand bring knowledge of computing and sustainability to the project, so it definitely feels like this constellation of people would be able to accomplish things together that any actor could not do alone. I have myself worked some with the sharing economy, not the least since that was the topic that I explored together with 65 master's level students in the project course "Future of Media" during the whole 2014 autumn term. Me and Elina are also developing an international master’s level specialisation at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, “Sustainable Information Society” that will start 18 months from now. There are major synergy effects between this proposed research project and that specialisation; we could for sure use results from the project in the courses in question (including in the planned project course) and we could also recruit students to conduct research and write their master's theses within the larger research project.

While Karin Bradley at the KTH ABE School will be responsible for the theoretical (2nd) work package, I personally expect to spend some time working within that package too. That would give me and Karin the opportunity to develop some ideas we discussed already three years ago in a previous application of ours (that we did not get funding for). The 2009 Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom spent the major part of her life studying how real communities succeed or fail at managing "common pool resources" such as land for grazing, fishing waters, forests etc. While she only studied finite (so-called "rival") resources - each fish can only be caught by one fisherman - we are on the other hand interested in how her findings can be applied to collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. We will use her principles for successful communal governance of such resources but also expect that they might have to be modified or developed in the context of the sharing economy where resources to some extent can be created out of this air (e.g. there is extra space in my car that I can offer to others at almost no extra cost to me).

The process of writing the application itself has for the most part been very fruitful, despite the fact that many parts of an EU application can be onerous to write. Still, after a concentrated effort that went into frenzy mode the last week, it is really nice to have handed in the application. We now lean back, cross our fingers and hope for the best. As a parting gift, here is part of the opening salvo of the application:

"The growth of the sharing economy and developments of state of the art online platforms are perfectly timed to help societies find new ways of working, of building community, and of promoting different and more sustainable ways of living.

The sharing economy encompasses commercial, for­profit, sharing platforms as Airbnb and Uber, but also a myriad of citizen­managed not­for­profit sharing schemes, such as a movement of turning homes to temporary “pop­up” collaborative office spaces (Hoffice), as well as platforms for sharing stuff, dinners or rides. These grassroots sharing initiatives are social innovations and have grown in a context of large youth unemployment and a labor market harboring increasing numbers of freelancers and different forms of temporary employment. The appeal of these sharing practices and the rationale for engaging in them may be economic, social and/or environmental; part of their power and their potential impact lies in leveraging several or all of these factors.

Sharing economy initiative or ‘startups’ ­ both commercial and non­commercial ­ can however face challenges that drastically affect their viability and long term success. Encouraging growth and replication of grassroots sharing initiatives implies a need for the maturing and scaling up of software tools (platforms) so that they can help handle more instances of an initiative, often meaning both more participants and a greater number of locations.

The scaling­up of an initiative does not only challenge the technical infrastructure (i.e. the set of software tools that are used to run the initiative in question), but also puts the spotlight on social issues such as access, trust, reputation, conflict­resolution mechanisms and regulation. It consequently becomes very important to think about the intersection of social and technical systems, e.g. of the so­called “socio­technical design cycle”.
The best way to explore socio­technical systems is thus iteratively, refining the software and carefully studying the consequences, as well as by thoroughly mapping the needs of the community and converting these into requirements for the (next version of the) software platform."