Monday, December 14, 2009


It isn’t just the superwealthy who tend to be mindless about their impact on the environment. It’s also the comparatively wealthy. The one billion people who live in the developed world or enjoy that lifestyle in the developing world are rich enough to not have to think about how much they are spending on energy. They don’t need to conserve to save money but are free to use as much as they want.

A few years back an expat friend held a house warming for a new place he’d bought in Phnom Penh. He was close to 50, recently married with a one-year-old kid, his first. Home tours are practically required under the circumstances, so he took me to check it out. When he opened the door to the kid’s room I was hit with a blast of cold air.

Gee, why do you have the air-con on full blast, I inquire. It’s on just in case the baby gets hot and needs to cool off, he replies. The kid is Cambodian and as long as she lives in Cambodia she’s going to have to get used to heat. Besides, I would think, the kid might get pneumonia from bouncing back and forth between sweltering and chilly. Besides, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for an air-conditioner to cool down a hot room.

His thoughts are on providing the best for his child but his actions are wasting the Earth for no good reason. It’s one thing to use energy for things that have value but to waste it mindlessly is just being clueless.

In a similar experience, also here in Cambodia, I was being shown around nice remodeled colonial house in Kampot, when my friend opened a door, announcing this was the bedroom, to a very cold room. What’s with the air-con full-on, I ask. I think my girlfriend might be up for a little nookie today, he answered, so I want the room to be ready, just in case. Hours of costly air-conditioning for an empty room. Why couldn’t he wait until he was sure the great event was going to happen to turn on the air-con and then wait another 3 or 4 minutes for the room to cool down before getting all hot and bothered?

It’s thoughtless consumption that contains no positives for the Earth, although it does have one (sort of) benefit, it adds to Cambodia’s GDP, Gross Domestic Product. So actually they’re doing their part to boost Cambodia’s economy. Hmm, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Can we really think of waste as a good thing? In this case, evidently, yes.

Everybody knows people in America who leave all their lights on or maybe leave the TV on all day even when nobody is watching it. No one could begrudge the use of electricity to provide light in the dark, but at least it should have a purpose. If that light is going to add to the planet’s CO2, it should be used for something. Light to read by? 100% good. Lighting rooms for hours when no one is there? Totally negative.

Back in 1994 I stayed at a small hotel in Amsterdam. As I headed up the stairs for the first time I turned on the light at ground level. As I got near the second floor the light automatically turned on, meanwhile the first floor light had gone out. Wow, it was almost like a revelation. Nobody’s present, the light goes off, what could be more simple?

Energy in America is so cheap that most people can’t be bothered conserving or even thinking about it. The reason why it’s so cheap is that most of the costs have been externalized. Coal makes cheap electricity but its extraction and use also results in pollution that causes many health problems; the cost, however, of treating those maladies is not part of the electricity bill.

People in the Pacific Northwest have very cheap power, the bulk of which comes from the many dams on the Columbia River, but it came at a high cost. There once were between 10 million and 16 million salmon, weighing up to 40 kilos, that returned annually to spawn in the Columbia or its tributaries. Today there are about 50,000 to 100,000 wild salmon spawning in that area. (There are also farmed salmon, but I’ll tell you a secret: they have to add orange coloring to those hatchery fish to make them look like salmon.) Well, what are ten million salmon worth? Shouldn’t that be part of the cost of the power?

There was hand-wringing and consternation in the financial community recently at the news that Japan didn’t grow as fast as predicted. Japan has an aging population; the oldest in the world, I believe. Oldsters generally have accumulated what they want of the material world, and don’t need to buy much. In addition, Japan’s population as a whole is declining, so there are fewer people every year to consume things. So then why do they need to grow? They are already rich. And why is it looked at as such a tragedy when they don’t?

Well, because we are locked into a mindset that promotes, even extols waste. Not everything is purely waste, of course, but the whole idea of contemporary economic thinking is to encourage people to consume. Marketing pervades all aspects of life in the modern world. It’s designed to get people to buy things whether they need them or not. Even sometimes whether they can afford them or not; as in purchasing non-essentials with credit cards and then paying usurious interest on the credit.

You can’t think about tackling climate change without thinking of sustainability first; without redesigning modern lifestyles to reflect values other than material possessions. However, as long as corporations have such a stranglehold over contemporary life, there is no possibility of even discussing sustainability. On the periphery, of course, there are a lot of people looking for more from life than mindless consumption, but sustainability can never replace the mania for growth as long as the corporations hold sway.

In addition to the problem of the waste inherent in developed country lifestyles there’s the desire, on the part of the newly flush in previously poor countries, to catch up with the rich world. Car sales in China this year rose 44% and have now surpassed the US. Chinese have the same rights to the convenience of private vehicles as Americans. As in the US their airwaves are jammed with car ads.

The ads, of course, never show those shiny new wheels stuck in traffic, where, in fact, they’re likely to spend most of their time. There’s no mention of the pollution and congestion they’ll bring to Chinese cities or the drain on the planet’s fossil fuel supplies. As in the US, the Chinese government has provided incentives to purchase new cars.

I totally understand the desire to own a car. I have one here in Cambodia and would feel really burdened not to have it. In Portland I’d feel positively deprived without a car. On the other hand, when I’m in Kampot, the small town, I always ride my bicycle. I always felt uncomfortable riding a bike in Portland and Phnom Penh is much worse, I’d never ride there. However, if you make biking convenient and comfortable, as in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, a much greater percentage of people will opt for that healthiest of transport.

China, in fact, was once a model of sustainability. When I first got to Kunming, in Southwest China, in 1992, private cars were banned and more than 80% of all movement was on bicycle. Every major street had a very wide bike path, as much as 3 to 4 meters wide. You could be out on the street with hundreds of people going by and it was so quiet the loudest sound would be conversations between people. Many of those boulevards had very wide sidewalks that were graced with one, two, sometimes even three rows of stately trees. It was heavenly, especially for an urban planner type.

However, even before I left at the end of 1996 the city, in order to provide more space for motor vehicles, had felled thousands of those great old trees and narrowed both the sidewalks and bike paths. On one main thoroughfare, after they contracted the bikelane, it was so crowded at times I would have to wait for two green lights to get through.

All to make room for the small number of elite who could afford to own private vehicles. Today, of course, lots of Chinese can afford cars and the country wants nothing more than to emulate the US and its car culture. And bordering on the absurd: some streets in Beijing have been made off-limits to bicycles to make them more convenient for cars.

So how do you promote sustainability and voluntary simplicity for the sake of the world when the masses are inundated with slick advertising encouraging them to buy what they really don’t need? Where are the ads to encourage people to ride bicycles?

Well, you don’t, at least not with any chance of actually making a difference. As long as the world is focused on endless growth and the manic pursuit of wealth, the relatively small number of people who consciously reject the push to consume cannot possibly save the planet.

If the mindset doesn’t change, the world cannot meet its challenges.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I’ve been having a hard time thinking about what to write lately. I started out with a Copenhagen summit global warming rant but then it seemed like I was repeating the same tired old lines. Anyway, nothing of substance, at least nothing that could preserve the world as we know it, is going to come out of the summit because most of the worst polluters are concerned that considering the needs of the Earth might hamper their economic growth. It doesn’t seem to penetrate their thick skulls that accumulating wealth is not going to mean much in a world that’s no longer viable or functional but that’s where we are today: everything revolves around immediate profits or wealth accumulation and the future be damned.

Obama’s Health Care Plan, more aptly described as a Health Care Industry Guaranteed Profits Plan? Almost worse than nothing since it does a little tweaking around the edges but leaves the rotten core to fester and create conditions that will demand revisiting the whole issue a few years down the line.

Too-big-to-fail big-bank record profits and bonuses generously subsidized by US taxpayers while unemployment grows and record numbers of people are forced out of their homes? You’ve heard it all before. Sensible bank regulation, separation of retail banking from purely speculative investment banking, consumer protection from financial scamming, taxation of financial transactions? Bwaa, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Like the prospects of a young doe in the clutches of a hungry tiger.

Afghanistan, Obama’s personal quagmire? Truly a lost cause. People who know the country will tell you Obama’s nation building project will take around a decade, not the year-and-a-half that the president is talking about; the year-and-a-half he says he needs to start bringing the troops home again.

Meanwhile here are a few political tidbits to chew on that appeared in recent news.

Most Seniors Get the Shaft from the Obama Administration

The government recently announced that there’d be no cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients. Instead there’ll be a one time payment of $250 for each pensioner. I’ve been getting a pension for six years during which my monthly pension has gone from $522 to $636. Averaged out it comes to about $19 per month per year. For me the one time $250 payment will be a wash, about the same as I would receive from a cost-of-living increase.

But I never earned more than $11,000 in one year in my life, so most seniors are getting more than me and loosing out. Half the people on Social Security depend on it exclusively so to take even a small portion of their due for other purposes – wars, bank bailouts – is borderline criminal, not to mention reneging on a firm commitment. For decades young people have been told that the money was not going to be there for them when they retired. That was to prepare them for the kind of raid on SS that we’re now witnessing.

In fact, Social Security is doing great, it has nearly $3 trillion in savings in the bank. The problem is the US government: it’s been using that money as if it were part of the general budget instead of a dedicated fund. The real crunch will come soon, in just a couple years, when a $200 billion dollar annual surplus from Social Security taxes changes to a $200 billion shortfall and SS starts dipping into its $3 trillion dollar trust fund to pay current recipients.

Reagan raised SS taxes to put money away for the eventuality that’s about to happen and it’s worth noting that SS taxes are very regressive; that is, earnings are taxed at a single rate up to $90,000 per year so the lower classes, including the lower middle class pay the full rate but the upper middle class and wealthy pay a smaller percentage of their income.

Back when Bush pushed through his tax cuts for the wealthy, Alan Greenspan, then head of the US Federal Reserve, thought it was a great idea. Just a few months later he was wringing his hands in worry about Social Security and how seniors were going to have to take a hit. Take back those tax cuts for the wealthy to meet long-time commitments to seniors? That’d be class warfare, can’t do that. Much easier to shaft the geezers.

US Government Pressures International Energy Agency to Falsify Crude Oil Supply and Demand Estimates

The IEA was created back in the 70’s in response to crude oil shortages that disrupted markets. Its purpose was to provide accurate figures for future supply and demand to protect from excessive price fluctuations. The US government, however, has not been interested in accurate numbers but rather feel-good numbers that would give everybody confidence that there’d be plenty of oil to last for decades so they could continue to consume to their heart’s content. Their rationale for fudging the numbers was they didn’t want to cause unnecessary price surges.

For their purposes they predicted that future demand and supply numbers would rise to levels that no rational impartial observer would consider achievable, let alone sustainable: in simplest terms, wishful thinking. But, reality doesn’t hinge on wishful thinking so falsifying the numbers to stave off price surges can only put off those surges to the future and make them a lot worse when they do happen. But at least Americans’ god given right to drive monster SUV’s in the interim was given a green light. Why worry about tomorrow when you can own a gas guzzler today?

Surge in Billionaires

A recent news article stated that the number of billionaires in India doubled in the past year. About a month ago it was the number of billionaires in China that had doubled. In contrast to their growing numbers of mega-rich both countries have hundreds of millions of desperately poor people. So I start to ponder, in terms of carbon footprint, how many poor Indians it takes to equal one Indian billionaire. Ten thousand? One hundred thousand? I imagine that one trans-oceanic trip in a personal jet produces as much carbon as the total emissions coming from thousands of poor Indians or Chinese all year.

And I got to wondering if those at the top ever think about the amount of pollution they’re responsible for, or if they ever extend even one iota’s thought to being good global citizens. You know, maybe change the thermostat in their climate controlled mansions by one degree to do their little bit for the planet. But then I thought, impossible: putting the planet’s needs first is for peons and commoners and left-wing radical environmentalists.

Tiger Woods’s Cadillac SUV has been in the news lately. Do you think it ever occurred to him that he really didn’t need one of the largest personal vehicles ever created just to bop around town? Naa, no way, I can’t imagine that it ever entered his mind. Billionaires are exempt from those kinds of mundane considerations. They are privileged, they have a special dispensation from the creator that encourages them to satisfy their every whim.

Bill Gates, one of the people in this world I most love to hate, build a $55 million house a few years back. It’s a modern technological marvel full of electronic gadgetry and wizardry but not one second’s thought went into making it energy efficient or in tune with the planet. If he had spent another $5 or $10 million more, literally pocket change for someone worth $50 billion, he could have built a great example of advanced ecological design. He couldn’t be bothered.

The world is stuck in a conundrum. On the one hand is the very real and pressing need to reduce consumption and corollary greenhouse gas emissions, which can only be done by the world’s people adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. On the other hand is the widespread, nearly ubiquitous desire to get rich and consume extravagantly and thoughtlessly. Wealth is applauded, pushed and extolled as what everyone’s ultimate goal should be and encouraged through tax laws that favor the moneyed classes.

You can’t have both. You can’t save the planet at the same time you encourage the accumulation of wealth. The vast majority of the wealthy have no social consciousness and certainly would not give up the least trifle of their comfort or prerogatives for any measure of global citizenship.

Obama and a lot of other leaders are looking at climate change as just another political problem where you negotiate here and compromise there and… well, you come up with an agreement which looks like you are doing something, but utterly fails to take into account the seriousness of the situation.

At this point I can almost sympathize with Obama: he’s the ultimate practical politician (at this point he seems to believe in nothing except compromise) so he knows how impossible it would be to actually do something meaningful to combat global warming. The US Senate, which has to ratify any international treaty, will never agree to do the right thing regarding climate change. The last time the issue came up in the Senate in 1998 they voted 98-1 against ratifying the Kyoto Treaty.

A true leader, through force of will and power of oration, could facilitate great changes but that’s not Obama.