Feeding people while sustaining resilient ecosystems

17 05 2009

Land-use change is a primary driver degrading ecosystems aside from the potential effects of climate change. This change has been brought upon us by the necessity of providing food, fibre, water and shelter to a growing human population. The mass conversion of forests, wetlands and grasslands into agricultural land has undermined the ability of ecosystems to sustain food production, maintain freshwater and forest resources, regulate climate and air quality, and buffer the spread of infectious diseases. We are presented with the challenge of creating a future in which land is used in a sustainable and integrated manner.

Paul Roberts talks a little about our food system on motherjones.com:

A couple years back, in a wheat field outside the town of Reardan, Washington, Fred Fleming spent an afternoon showing me just how hard it’s gotten to save the world.

After decades as an unrepentant industrial farmer, the tall 59-year-old realized that his standard practices were promoting erosion so severe that it was robbing him of several tons of soil per acre per year—his most important asset. So in 2000, he began to experiment with a gentler planting method known as no-till.

While traditional farmers plow their fields after each harvest, exposing the soil for easy replanting, Fleming leaves his soil and crop residue intact and uses a special machine to poke the seeds through the residue and into the soil.

The results aren’t pretty: In winter, when his neighbors’ fields are neat brown squares, Fleming’s looks like a bedraggled lawn. But by leaving the stalks and chaff on the field, Fleming has dramatically reduced erosion without hurting his wheat yields.

He has, in other words, figured out how to cut one of the more egregious external costs of farming while maintaining the high output necessary to feed a growing world—thus providing a glimpse of what a new, more sustainable food system might look like.

But there’s a catch. Because Fleming doesn’t till his soil, his fields are gradually invaded by weeds, which he controls with “judicious” amounts of Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide that has become an icon of unsustainable agribusiness.

Fleming defends his approach: Because his herbicide dosages are small, and because he controls erosion, the total volume of “farm chemistry,” as he calls it, that leaches from his fields each year is far less than that from a conventional wheat operation.

None­theless, even judicious chemical use means Fleming can’t charge the organic price premium or appeal to many of the conscientious shoppers who are supposed to be leading the food revolution. At a recent conference on alternative farming, Fleming says, the organic farmers he met were “polite—but they definitely gave me the cold shoulder.”

That a recovering industrial farmer can’t get respect from the alternative food crowd may seem trivial, but Fleming’s experience cuts to the very heart of the debate over how to fix our food system.

Nearly everyone agrees that we need new methods that produce more higher-quality calories using fewer resources, such as water or energy, and accruing fewer “externals,” such as pollution or unfair labor practices.

Where the consensus fails is over what should replace the bad old industrial system. It’s not that we lack enthusiasm—activist foodies represent one of the most potent market forces on the planet. Unfortunately, a lot of that conscientious buying power is directed toward conceptions of sustainable food that may be out of date.

Think about it. When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists—such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches—only on a much larger scale.

The future of food, in other words, will be built from ideas and models that are familiar, relatively simple, and easily distilled into a buying decision: Look for the right label, and you’re done.

But that’s not the reality. Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Such problems aren’t exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable.

And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming’s, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.

And how big is that gap? Using the definition of sustainability above, about 2 percent of the food purchased in the United States qualifies. Put another way, we’re going to need not only new methods for producing food, but a whole new set of assumptions about what sustainability really means.

Food is not simple. To make it, you have to balance myriad variables—soil, water, and nutrients, of course, but also various social, political, and economic realities.

But because our consumer culture favors fixes that are fast and easy, our approaches toward food advocacy have been built around one or two dimensions of production, such as reducing energy use or eliminating pesticides, while overlooking factors that are harder to define (and ditto to market), such as worker safety.

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Radical geography with David Harvey

3 04 2009

David Harvey, a professor of anthropology and Marxist geographer, talks about global inequality, neo-liberalism, consolidation of power and capitalism after the crisis on Democracy Now.

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A great mission: The Olympics of destruction

16 03 2009

The characteristic corporatisation and social destruction of the Olympics is already becoming evident.

Apparently infrastructure and obsolete buildings are more important than local communities.

Vodpod videos no longer available.





Summit protests and the economic crisis

15 03 2009

Pulled from shiftmag.co.uk

Summit-hopping is so last year. Or is it? When we began conceiving this issue a few months back, it seemed like everyone was gearing up for a busy 2009: NATO’s 60th anniversary party, the G20 summit in London, the G8 in Italy, the UN’s climate summit in Copenhagen… Ten years on from the ‘battle of Seattle’, 2009 was set to be the return of summit-hopping.

However, so far, anti-capitalists in Italy appear to have made little progress in mobilising against the G8 summit in July. What is more, everyone is talking about the UN’s climate change conference next December in Copenhagen. This comes with the awful package of environment minister Miliband calling for a mass movement for green capitalism and an austerity deal. The threat of another paralysing ‘Make Poverty History’-style mobilisation looms. On the other hand, there are, of course, some summits that continue to attract fundamental antagonism. The EU’s meeting on immigration in Vichy, France, last November was one example, despite a lack of mobilisation from the UK.

There is something that is fundamentally different from the previous decade of large anti-globalisation mobilisations: neo-liberalism itself is in crisis! The policies that were promoted by the anti-globalisation arch enemies (WTO, World Bank, IMF) are failing not only in Argentina and Mexico, but also in Europe and North America. The current financial crisis provides a platform for a systematic critique of the current economic system.

Maybe we should be excited that suddenly everyone is talking about the economy. Or should we? Many analyses of the crisis seem to be putting forward reactionary solutions. For a start, who we blame will define how we respond. Socialists blame bankers, government ministers and conservatives (and increasingly liberals) blame immigration, environmentalists and the middle classes blame the mass consumerism of the working class and the corporate media blames everyone. And what, then, will the response be? Anti-consumerism and austerity politics? Economy-boosting interest rate cuts? Tougher immigration controls? Urban riots? Blame creates hierarchies and characterises anti-globalisation protests. If we are to build a collective, emancipatory response to the crisis we need to be critical of any strategies that ignore the realities of life in capitalism, that fuel moral superiority and reinforce class divisions.

Furthermore, with every crisis comes a new conspiracy theory. The problem with these ‘explanations’ is that a capitalist crisis is not the result of the errors of a ‘small and elusive group of people’ as the conspiracy theorists want us to believe.

We live in a system that is antithetical to our needs, and importantly, our desires.

Crises are inherent in capitalism. There is no solution that will make capitalism free of crises. We can demand more regulation of the financial sector or the nationalisation and democratic ownership of banks. Still, capitalism’s crises are based in its inherent contradictory character with the desire to produce for profit-maximisation rather than social needs. And this will always be the central goal of capitalist production. A crisis won’t change that. There are more crises to come, with indications that speculation with raw materials and food could lead to much bigger misery than the bursting of the credit bubble. It is contradictory and irrational to produce, distribute and exchange resources as is done in a capitalist economy, thus capitalism without crises would be an oxymoron.

The left should take the crisis as an opportunity to push for more, to push for a system that puts our needs and desires above profit, to avoid limiting ourselves and scapegoating others. At a time where political leaders are making our demands seem reasonable (whether that’s the nationalisation of banks or a strong climate deal), we should not settle for compromise but demand the impossible!

Despite these new opportunities, there are few signs for a new wave of summit protests that can escape the attempts by governments to recuperate them. Protests are not happening outside summits now. As we write, they are happening in suburbs and big university towns. The migrant youths of St. Denis, the anti-CPE students, the Anomalous Wave movement and the Greek anarchist youth all dominate the headlines, rather than the plans for opposition to the G8 or G20. Also in Britain, radical anti-capitalist protest is no longer connected to the anti-globalisation movement, but is at the radical edge of the failed anti-war movement of 2003. Maybe in 2009 ‘suburb-hopping’ offers new opportunities for resistance?





Herman Daly’s economics for society and the biosphere

27 01 2009

We live in a vulnerable world-system characterised by mass consumption, appropriation, plunder, environmental degradation, domination of rich over poor and war. Plagued with crises that transcend nations and the consequences of climate change lurking around the corner, we need a solution that subordinates economic growth for human well-being and ecological resilience. Herman has a proposal:

The earth as a whole is approximately in a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow (the greenhouse effect has slowed the outflow, but the resulting temperature increase will force it back up); and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible).

None of this means that the earth is static – a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the economy, relative to the total system, the ecosphere. This huge shift from an “empty” to a “full” world is truly “something new under the sun,” as historian J. R. McNeil calls it in his book of that title. The closer the economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth, the more it will have to conform to the physical behavior mode of the Earth. That behavior mode is a steady state – a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth. Growth is more of the same stuff; development is the same amount of better stuff (or at least different stuff). The remaining natural world is no longer able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized economy – much less a growing one. Economists have focused too much on the economy’s circulatory system and have neglected to study its digestive tract. Throughput growth means pushing more of the same food through an ever larger digestive tract; development means eating better food and digesting it more thoroughly. Clearly the economy must conform to the rules of a steady state – seek qualitative development, but stop aggregate quantitative growth. GDP increase conflates these two very different things.

We have lived for 200 years in a growth economy. That makes it hard to imagine what a steady-state economy (SSE) would be like, even though for most of our history mankind has lived in an economy in which annual growth has been negligible. Some think an SSE would mean freezing in the dark under communist tyranny. Some say that huge improvements in technology (energy efficiency, recycling) are so easy that it will make the adjustment both profitable and fun.

Regardless of whether it will be hard or easy, we have to attempt an SSE because we cannot continue growing, and in fact so-called “economic” growth already has become uneconomic. The growth economy is failing. In other words, the quantitative expansion of the economic subsystem increases environmental and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer not richer, at least in high-consumption countries. Given the laws of diminishing marginal utility and increasing marginal costs, this should not have been unexpected. And even new technology sometimes makes it worse. For example, tetraethyl lead provided the benefit of reducing engine knock, but at the cost of spreading a toxic heavy metal into the biosphere; chlorofluorocarbons gave us the benefit of a nontoxic propellant and refrigerant, but at the cost of creating a hole in the ozone layer and a resulting increase in ultraviolet radiation. It is hard to know for sure that growth now increases costs faster than benefits since we do not bother to separate costs from benefits in our national accounts. Instead we lump them together as “activity” in the calculation of GDP.

Ecological economists have offered empirical evidence that growth is already uneconomic in high-consumption countries. Since neoclassical economists are unable to demonstrate that growth, either in throughput or GDP, is currently making us better off rather than worse off, it is blind arrogance on their part to continue preaching aggregate growth as the solution to our problems. Yes, most of our problems (poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation) would be easier to solve if we were richer – that is not the issue. The issue is: Does growth in GDP any longer really make us richer? Or is it now making us poorer?

For poor countries GDP growth still increases welfare, at least if reasonably distributed. The question is, what is the best thing for rich countries to do to help poor countries? The World Bank’s answer is that the rich should continue to grow as rapidly as possible to provide markets for the poor and to accumulate capital to invest in poor countries. The steady state answer is that the rich should reduce their throughput growth to free up resources and ecological space for use by the poor, while focusing their domestic efforts on development, technical and social improvements, that can be freely shared with poor countries.

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