Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Steady State Economics in a Time of Renewable Energy Inertia and Media Hype of Going Toilet Paperless for a Year

By Paul K. Haeder

This is a potpourri of news today after a long weekend holding to the principles of thinking about how the world has changed the past decade since the USA was attacked on September 11, 2001. First, the idea of sustainability goes a long way when we look at the foundation of a steady state economy. It’s become clearer and clearer to many that a successful and creative economy does not have to be a growing economy. A steady state economy is defined largely by a stabilized human population and true controlled consumption, consumption that is practical and foundational to equity throughout the world. As steady state economists say: Such stability means that the amounts of resource throughput and waste disposal remain roughly constant.

"We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes."
Plea made in 1993 by over 1500 of the world’s top scientists, many Nobel Laureates

Here’s our current economic character, in a globalized mindset. Economic growth, two, three, what, ten percent in China or India two years ago, whatever the economic growth engine numbers are, they bring with them destruction and imbalance -- growth of other aspects, negatives, real deal breakers, in a world that puts economics above all other things in the sustainability picture – Equity, Environment, Education, Energy and then Economics.

Richard Heinberg has written about the Century of Declines, that is, the 21st century which will be marked by huge declines in cheap and easily gotten to energy, including coal. Peak resources – and expensive and peaking oil – will require us to accept a reversal of the capitalistic gains over the past 100 years. We need to begin these conversations.


Here’s what the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) has to say about exponential economic growth as a paradigm:

• jobless growth, where the economy grows, but does not expand opportunities for employment;
• ruthless growth, where the proceeds of economic growth mostly benefit the rich;
• voiceless growth, where economic growth is not accompanied by extension of democracy or empowerment;
• rootless growth, where economic growth squashes people’s cultural identity; and
futureless growth, where the present generation squanders resources needed by future generations.

For more on the Steady State Economy, follow these links:


Steady-State Economics by Herman Daly is a brilliant series of essays about why we need to transition to a steady state economy and how to do it.

Eight Areas of Concern
are hitting planners, policy makers, the people of the world hard:

New Challenges to the Montreal Protocol." Hayman, Gavin and S. Trent. Environmental Investigation Agency.

The Convention on Biodiversity
Convention Text. United Nations Environment Programme.

Smil, Vaclav. Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.
Mc Quaig, L. It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil, and the Fight for the Planet, Doubleday Canada, 2004.

Climate Change
“Climate of 1999 - Annual Review"National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ol/climate/research/1999/ann/ann99.html

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-being. Washington: Island Press, 2003.

Soil Fertility

Toxic Substances



These are the major sustainability issues unrelated to the equity and cultural questions raised in a world where three billion live on $3.50
[http://www.globalissues.org/issue/2/causes-of-poverty] a day and where 5 percent of the global population controls 80 percent of wealth. Or, look at it this way -- The World Institute for Development Economics Research at the UN University says that the poorer half of the world's population own barely 1% of global wealth.

[http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6211250.stm ]

Steady State Economics is posited as one way to address those eight areas of concern and the issue of lack of equity and education and fair wages for more than 4 billion people on earth. Here is more from CASSE:

 A Sustainable Scale Perspective -- Thinking in terms of sustainable scale is essential to ensure economic activities do not destroy the life support services provided by critical ecosystems.
 Visions For A Sustainable Future -- Articulating possible visions for a sustainable future is an important activity that can be an inspiration for change.
 Understanding Human Happiness and Well Being -- Our current economic activities have false and dangerous assumptions about human happiness and well being. Clarifying our understanding is central to developing sustainable scale relevant policies.
 Supportive Public Policies -- There are a variety of public policy tools currently available to promote scale relevant solutions.
 Economics For Community -- Reformulating the role of economic activities in supporting human well being is essential to developing scale relevant policies.
 Sustainable Business Practices -- A variety of sustainable business practices are available and need to be developed to support the global transition to an ecologically sustainable future.
 Institutions for a Sustainable Future -- The many institutions that currently support policies and practices that allow economic activities to degrade critical ecosystem services need to be reformed, and new ones developed.
 Lifestyle Solutions -- Many attractive lifestyle solutions are available to promote both ecological sustainability and human well being

While the global scale of these problems are daunting, just dealing with simple energy legislation in California shows how hobbled we are as a culture and society in terms of moving forward. Baby steps, or course, are for infants and toddlers, not entire cultures and the world at large. Adult steps have to be taken to protect those unborn and young today that will have huge problems to solve because of the cheap fossil fuel era and the quickening of the peak Century.
Big steps turned into back steps -- The Senate in California actually passed a bill requiring a portion of the state’s electricity come from wind, solar and other renewable. And again, we now have a veto threat, evidence of inside pressure from lobbying groups, and the resulting inertia sure to come. This is not good news on any front; the assault on logic and scientific truths is appalling.

SAN FRANCISCO/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will veto a bill requiring the state to get a third of its electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources, his staff said on Monday in a fight that shows the difficulties of addressing climate change fast.

Schwarzenegger, whose legacy is largely pinned on driving California's response to global warming, believes the bill passed in the last hours of the legislative session on Friday would make it more difficult to build solar plants in the state and to buy power from neighbors.

California's rank as the largest market for renewable power makes any decision important, and as the U.S. Congress struggles to put together a federal plan, the state's leadership and failures could shape a national plan.
"The industry and regulators are going to wind up spending the next few years wrangling about how to implement the bill as opposed to actually putting steel in the ground," said Public Utilities Commission Deputy Director Nancy Ryan on a call sponsored by the governor.

She said more flexibility was needed, while the bill's main sponsor said curbs on buying power from out of state would ensure jobs were kept in California and give needed weight to the 33 percent goal, which state agencies have already set.

"I'm still holding out hope that the governor will rethink that position" of a veto, State Senator Joe Simitian said in a conference call with reporters that overlapped with Ryan's.

Then the book and flick chronicling and shilling the ideas behind the guy and his wife and kid "going without" for a year-long period. Colin Beavan, AKA No Impact Man, and his wife, Michelle, took a pledge to reduce their so called ecological footprint. Yes, the concept is full of PT Barnum chutzpah, and the book and movie deal prove the ultimate modern motive -- our American pastime spending time in the echo chamber of superficiality, the warped sense of narrative from our the media, and many tens of millions plagued by inertia while trapped in TV-viewing haze while sitting in our living rooms. Here’s the lo down.


Beavan and his wife vowed to stick to this diet for a year:

• No driving, no flying, or even relying on mass transit. They got to where they needed to go on foot, bike or scooter.
• No more elevators, either; they took the stairs to reach their ninth-floor apartment (several exceptions to these rules were made: two train rides to visit upstate farms, and an occasional elevator ride when security measures or double-digit floors in a midtown New York high-rise required it).
• No buying new stuff, except for foods produced within 250 miles of Manhattan. So, no more takeout, out-of-season produce or coffee (although Michelle fought for, and won, a concession on the coffee front). And no meat, because livestock production is such a fossil-fuel-intensive process.
• No watching TV; the family eventually went off the grid entirely, playing cards by candlelight and otherwise amusing themselves without electricity.
• No washing machine or refrigerator. Abstaining from these two appliances proved especially challenging, as No Impact Man, the film documenting Beavan's endeavor, memorably shows

It’s good that Elizabeth Kolbert is weighing in on this media hype of the No Impact Man phenom. Yes, he’s just trying to make a buck, but he is a New York guy with New York agent and with the sort of goals necessary to sell yet more redundant and possibly irrelevant stuff on the going green spiel.

“No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25), is one of dozens of books or flicks that are quaint at best. The reality is that many of us are struggling, and we are teachers, social workers, bus drivers, construction workers, blue and white collar folk in the service economy, in the knowledge economy, who just need to find ways to cut consumption of gasoline, electricity and food because prices are killing us. The people working on $3.50 a day? They are in a global economy now, and their efforts to normalized their basic living necessities have been hijacked by the industrialized nations’ land, resource and labor grabs.

So when Kolbert pokes fun at Walden Farm, or the other books centered “around some nouveau-Thoreauvian conceit,” she has to be listened to. Her work, “Field Notes on a Catastrophe”

[http://forum-network.org/lecture/elizabeth-kolbert-field-notes-catastrophe ]

[http://www.grist.org/article/hayes/ ]

and three part series, “The Climate of Man,”



get to the realities of global climate disruption and how serious this matter is – it’s not about getting guys and gals to go off the grid for a year, or go local, or dumpster diving for a book contract and 15-minutes of Warhol fame. Here are works she points out in her article: a month eating only food grown in an urban back yard, as in “Farm City” (2009); a year eating food produced on a gentleman’s farm, as in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (2007); or driving across the country on used cooking oil, as in “Greasy Rider” (2008); or giving up fossil fuels for goats, as in “Farewell, My Subaru” (2008).

We are a great nation because we do have a sense of humor and we have used the public space to air our disagreements, and our popular arts and culture have some underpinnings that make for working toward post carbon lives, or any serious topic for that matter, interesting, compelling. Maybe we are tribal, and we know tribes of ancient and still many today do relish in storytelling, grabbing at tragedy with a glimmer of sarcasm and comedy.

But we also seem to be amusing ourselves to death


with this constant glorification of TV-comedians reading and analyzing the news; the bizarre racist-sexist-stupid pundits on Fox, even PBS; reality show folk who garner more and more of the American psyche in those more degraded "great dramas" they expose themselves in and which we consume; then the reporting on these folk, including the celebrities of all form and manner; the constant thuggery and mean-spirited professional sports teams getting more money, getting tax-dollar supported stadiums; and maybe even these literati in the sustainability field who make a living off of writing about these things, and that includes Kolbert, but I'm not so quick to indict them yet.

This is not to say people like me who make a living teaching, writing, focusing on community development, and facilitating groups to start participating in their own neighborhoods and lives, can’t enjoy some of this media thing we live inside as the world burns – Derrick Jensen is a joy to read because his truths are beyond the white noise of today's popular media and press:


I recommend reading Kolbert’s take on No Impact Man, and below is an excerpt from that New Yorker piece. Are we playing this pop culture thing too much to really move forward on very serious issues? Do the media control too much of the framing? Is science scary, not understandable by average Joe and Jane? Let’s keep that dialogue going. Let’s look at the Genuine Progress Index and the Genuine Peace Index as viable alternatives to the GDP. Let’s consider a Steady State Economy and not lambaste the thinkers as being communist, or against prosperity.


Kolbert writes:

Vanessa Farquharson, an entertainment reporter for Canada’s National Post, is the author of “Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $13.95). Farquharson opens her book with the proposition that it is better to take small steps on behalf of the planet than to do nothing at all. She transforms this sensible idea into a book-worthy stunt by resolving to make one “green” life-style change every day for a year (all the while posting her resolutions on her blog).

At twenty-eight, Farquharson is almost exactly the age that Thoreau was when he set off for Walden Pond. And she’s a lot like him, too, if he’d been the type who, as she writes of herself, enjoys blowing a “month’s savings on a bottle of pink Veuve Clicquot and pairing it with back-to-back reruns of ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ ”

Farquharson’s “green-ovations” range from the significant (“sell my car”) to the useful (“turn down my thermostat,” “fix things rather than replace them”) to the downright ditzy (“go to eco-friendly spas,” “shop at green malls,” “use a natural lubricant instead of K-Y”). The day after she resolves to “use no more toothpicks,” Farquharson is shown a house that’s for sale not far from her apartment in Toronto. It’s newly renovated, with three stories, and, in terms of Farquharson’s ecological footprint, represents an awful lot of toothpicks. She immediately buys it. (“I must have this house,” she writes.) Meanwhile, even though flying is pretty much the most carbon-intensive activity possible, Farquharson is constantly taking to the air. At one point, she flies to Banff for a writers’ workshop. At another, she flies to Portland, Oregon, to undertake, of all things, a sustainability-oriented bike trip. (During the trip, she sleeps with one of the trip’s leaders, and so a few weeks later he flies to Toronto to stay with her.) She flies to Tel Aviv to visit another guy she will eventually sleep with. Finally, she flies to New York, where she seeks out Beavan, because, as she puts it, there’s “no way” she is going to go all the way to Manhattan “without confronting my competi— . . . I mean, meeting my fellow green blogger.” They rendezvous, at Beavan’s suggestion, at the Grey Dog’s Coffee, on University Place, which, Farquharson sniffs, doesn’t seem “especially green in any way.” Naturally, the talk turns to shit.

Farquharson, who has, in her words, gone “off TP for number one,” but has been unable to persuade herself to “go all the way,” tries to press Beavan for the details of his excretory routine. How, exactly, does No Impact Man get by without toilet paper? He is not forthcoming, and she is suspicious.

“I wondered if Colin was perhaps being purposely coy,” she writes. “Maybe he planned to go into more depth about his bathroom proceedings when it came to writing his book and didn’t want to leak—pardon the pun—any of this information to me beforehand.”

Thoreau’s stunt was, qua stunt, a disappointment. Though “Walden” sold better than “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” it grossed its author only $96.60 in royalties. Thoreau tried to put together a lecture tour of the Midwest and Canada, but most of it had to be called off, owing to a lack of interest.

No Impact Man, by contrast, has already been a public-relations triumph. Before he had even finished his experiment, Beavan caught the attention of the Times. A reporter came to his apartment for dinner and wrote a long profile that ran on the front page of the House & Home section. This led to a flood of media requests. Beavan got calls from television stations as far away as Japan and Australia. He was interviewed by Diane Sawyer, Scott Simon, and Stephen Colbert. Meanwhile, a crew of documentary filmmakers followed No Impact Man and his wife around the city. (For maximum impact, their movie is being released simultaneously with the book.)

Reportedly, Beavan has sold the rights to his story to Hollywood.
No Impact Man’s appeal to the media is no mystery. His shtick deals with a serious subject but is easy to poke fun at. Colbert characterized it as “like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ only completely implausible.” The Times called it, at best, “a scene from an old-fashioned situation comedy and, at worst, an ethically murky exercise in self-promotion.” (The headline was “THE YEAR WITHOUT TOILET PAPER.”)

In his book, Beavan reports that he was “devastated” by this treatment. “I feel that it has trivialized my work,” he writes of the Times piece. “It worries me that I’ve single-handedly managed to make a mockery of the entire environmental movement.”

There’s something a tad disingenuous here. Beavan is, after all, a man whose environmental activism began over lunch with his agent. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in electrical engineering to see through his claims to experimental rigor. Indeed, in its own candlelit way, his project is almost as incoherent as Farquharson’s. When No Impact Man shuts off the power at his apartment, you might think that his blog would have to go dark (and along with it his compulsive checking of his ratings on Technorati). But every day Beavan bikes to the Writers Room, on Broadway at Waverly Place, and plugs in his laptop. Meanwhile, Michelle scooters off to work at the offices of BusinessWeek, and Isabella spends the day at the (presumably electrified) apartment of a sitter.

So committed is Beavan to his claim of zero impact that he can’t—or won’t—see the deforestation for the trees. He worries a great deal about the environmental consequences of Michelle’s tampon use and the shrink-wrap around a block of cheese. But when it comes to his building’s heating system, which is apparently so wasteful that people are opening windows in the middle of winter, he just throws up his hands.

A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.

What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. On the last page, he observes:

Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.

So, what are you going to do?

If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly—or perhaps happily—it isn’t. The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

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