Archive for March, 2012

Economics of Nature

It seems fairly obvious to me that, like it or not, capitalism rules the world. Anarchism never got off the ground because it was impossible to “imagine no possessions” as John Lennon suggested. Communism failed because people did not want to imagine no possessions that did not belong to the state. So capitalism reigns supreme because it appeals to our need to strive and succeed and, of course, to our greed. And, as Gordon Gekko once said, “Greed is good.” Maybe not so good just at the moment but I am sure it will come into fashion again.

The trouble is that the proponents of capitalism, like the proponents of all the other financial systems, cheat to further their own ends. There is a belief in the free market when it suits. There is a belief in subsidies when they suit. And there appears to be an almost universal belief that the air, water, earth, timber, etc are all free. Even resources that are not free are provided to large corporations at markedly reduced rates, such as Alcoa and its subsidised electricity. Perhaps if the solar industry was similarly subsidised it too would suddenly become as affordable as oil. But we can’t have that.

If nothing else the Deep Water Horizon oil spill taught us that large corporations can be held accountable for affecting other people’s lives and livelihoods. If their actions are detrimental then those affected deserve to be compensated. Unfortunately the legislation in the US has a few more teeth than in Nigeria, where oil companies are free to pollute and damage livelihoods with no fear of repercussions. (Having said that I heard recently that a group of Nigerians are bringing a class action suit against Shell for causing two massive oil spills, so there is hope for all of us.)

It seems reasonable to me that if I am a rubber tapper and someone cuts down the forest, which belongs to no one (or everyone), then I should be compensated for loss of livelihood. If I am a prawn fisherman I should be compensated when the mangroves, which belong to no one (or everyone), are drained, as this is taking away prawn nurseries. If my farm is downhill from a forest that has been logged I should be compensated if my farm then floods because there are no trees to contain the runoff. If a genetically engineered plant excretes a toxin which kills bees as well as noxious pests (http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,473166,00.html), apiarists should be compensated. In fact all of us should be compensated because, according to Indian banker Pavan Sukdhev, the global value of pollination for food-bearing trees and various forms of agriculture is in the order of $190 billion per annum.

For more on Pavan Sukhdev see “Putting a Price on the Real Value of Nature” (http://e360.yale.edu/feature/putting_a_price_tag_on_the_real_value_of_nature/2481/ ). He is a founding member of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) which is a major international initiative aimed at drawing attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity and attempting to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. Like war environmental destruction is bad for business. It’s hard to make a profit if you keep smashing your equipment. For more information check out http://www.teebweb.org.

Another example focusses on the toilets of Kampala, Uganda. The Kampala sewage system consists of a large 40 square kilometre swamp. At one point the local administration decided to dam up the swamp, which no one owned, and convert it to agricultural land, until an economist pointed out that the value of this horrible mosquito-infested swamp, as a way of eating up the human sewage from the city of Kampala, was something like $2 million. The economist also pointed out that to build an alternative physical sewage-treatment plant would cost a huge amount of money and cost another one-and-a-half-million dollars to run. All this was being provided free by the swamp.

It’s time to calculate the true cost of doing business. No more freebies from the planet. I suspect that taking ALL costs into consideration would drive us considerably faster into a sustainable future.

Dr. F. Bunny

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I Blog and I Vote

I surf and I vote. I fish and I vote. I hunt and I vote. I pick my nose and I vote. I hope someone is as fed up with these stupid stickers as I am. Of course you vote. We all vote. We live in Australia where it’s compulsory after all. It might make some sense if these inane stickers were plastered on American cars where nobody votes unless they have an axe to grind or there’s nothing on TV. Curiously I’ve never actually seen these stickers on cars in America. I’m not sure what the sticker owners want us to do about it. Like I said, we all vote! Maybe I could get one that says, “I don’t give a stuff what you do in your spare time. And I vote!”

Dr. F. Bunny

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Don’t Worry – Be Happy

Long tendrils of black smoke curled up into the sky. All around lay charred bodies and burned buildings. Dresden 1945? No, just the six o’clock news. We are bombarded on all sides with images and messages of doom, destruction and death.

The world is heating up causing firestorms of ever greater ferocity. Global warming will produce more violent hurricanes (See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/08/0804_050804_hurricanewarming.html). (Apparently it will also decrease the temperature gradient between the poles and the equator because the poles will heat up proportionately more. This will mean less wind, a failure of wind turbines and less intense wind related storms? (See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101109095314.htm). I’m not sure how you can have both, but never let logic get in the way of hysteria). Avian influenza will jump from birds to humans wiping us all out. Extremists will turn the infidel lands into radioactive wastelands. Depending on which gloom merchant you read anywhere from 20 to 200 species go extinct every day. The world population has already grown by nearly 12 million people this year (See http://www.worldometers.info/world-population), and we topped seven billion in October last year.

I’ve heard it all before. You’ve heard it all before. What we’re not hearing is the fact that we are also living in the best of times, because good news doesn’t sell. Last year the second major disease, after small pox, was eradicated from the planet. Rinderpest, a serious disease of cattle, has become extinct, and polio seems likely to follow. Deaths from malaria, one of our biggest killers, are down. We are living longer than any of our ancestors. According to Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature) we are less likely to die violently now than at any time in our history. According to his statistics the murder rate of 14th century Oxford was 110 per 100,000 people. The murder rate for mid-20th century London was one death per 100,000 people. In prehistory approximately 15% of people died in wars, compared with 0.7% of the population in the 20th century. If we add disease, famine and genocide to that we can get it all the way up to 3%. Still, that’s little consolation for the 180 million people who contributed to that statistic.

Nevertheless, contrary to what our friends in the media would have us believe, violence is decreasing, partly because of the formation of nation states with their state sanctioned punishments, shifts in attitude resulting in people thinking less selfishly and the simple fact that violence and war are bad for business. Why hammer someone into submission by force when you can pillage them financially and make a huge profit as well?

Cynicism aside, however, for most of the people reading this life is pretty reasonable but we appear to be hard wired to focus only on the negative, conveniently blanking out the positive. We need to change that attitude. Recently I viewed a TED talk by Shawn Achor on this very topic. If you’re not aware of TED it stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, can be found at http://www.ted.com and is well worth a visit as it contains a myriad of talks on a huge range of topics.

Shawn Achor’s (http://www.shawnachor.com) attempt to change the way we think focusses on meditation, exercise, writing down three things each day that we are grateful for, writing down one positive experience each day and performing one act of kindness each day. Do this for 21 days and your brain is retrained. Does this really work or is it just hype? Does it really matter? Best case scenario: if you’re a doctor you’ll be more intelligent and creative and make accurate diagnoses 19% faster, if you’re a salesperson you’ll outsell your pessimistic counterparts by 56%, and the rest of you will receive up to 25% higher job performance ratings than your unhappy colleagues and you’ll be more productive, perform better, earn more money, take fewer sick days and be less likely to burn out (according to Shawn Achor’s statistics). Worst case scenario? You’ll be no worse off than you are now.

So you may as well give it a go and, as the very much alive Bobby McFerrin (not that Guy Sebastian rip off merchant) said, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Dr. F. Bunny

“Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the “ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” (Stephen Jay Gould -palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and science writer)

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