A Question of Balance

“It’s a question of balance.” I guess, this might be the most often-used phrase on this blog. Today, again, I would like to write about an important balancing act that is not easy to achieve. Particularly so, as we have to achieve it (almost) everyday. It is the balance between being satisfied, on the one hand, and not being satisfied, on the other. Continue reading

The Case for A-Growth, Not De-Growth

It is always a very nice feeling when you find thoughts similar to yours in an influential publication. Once upon a time, some 1 1/2 years ago, I published here a text entitled Stop Debating Growth and Focus on What Is Important (yeah, I admit that titles are not quite a strength of mine). Today I read a paper by Jeroen van den Bergh, published two years ago in the Ecological Economics journal, entitled Environment versus growth — A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”. To my pleasure, his credo is very similar to what I wanted to emphasize in the Stop Debating text. Continue reading

Who Is Responsible for Achieving Sustainability?

Most people in the world would probably agree that sustainability is a good idea. We would probably not agree as easily on what sustainability is. And it is highly improbable that we would agree on who is responsible for achieving sustainability. Is it us consumers in rich countries? Or rather the governments in poor countries? Or is it the UN? Or maybe transnational corporations? Can this broadly put question be sensibly answered at all, or should we rather discriminate between different aspects of sustainability – by which we return to the question of what sustainability is? In what follows I would like to offer some possible answers to these questions. Continue reading

Getting Prices Right vs. Getting Morals Right

One major justification of my work on the economic valuation of ecosystems is that we need to “get the prices right”. Economists think that factoring the value of ecosystem services into the prices of goods and services traded in markets is one important way of creating incentives to use these ecosystems sustainably. Opponents of the economic approach, however, fear the resulting “commodification of Nature”. Instead, the Douglas McCauleys and Mark Sagoffs of this world suggest that, instead of getting the prices right, we should attempt at getting morals right. In their view, this is the right approach to end the ongoing destruction of Nature, rather than the harmful valuation exercises conducted by economists. Continue reading

The Northern Lifestyles Problem or On Arrogance and Hypocrisy

There is a frequently recurring theme in the discussions about global environmental problems. It starts with the observation that we, the so-called “West” or “global North”, have overused global resources and sinks badly, be it reserves of minerals and metals (rare earths, oil, phosphorus…), the atmosphere or the oceans. Part of the problem seems to be our common modes of consumption. All too often, the destruction of nature does not take place in our own neighbourhoods, but in the so-called “global South”, where many of our resources come from and where many sinks tend to be located (or where the overuse of the latter is most visible – vide climate change). But the problem of the near future is often perceived not to be us, not only us at least, but the societies of the so-called emerging economies – particularly China and India, but also South Africa, Brazil, Argentina or many countries in South-East Asia. Continue reading

Mark Sagoff’s Schizophrenia

I am currently reading The Economy of the Earth by the US-American philosopher Mark Sagoff, one of the more influential critiques of the economic approach to preservation of nature based on its valuation. There is a lot of things in Sagoff’s book I don’t agree with, including a few false analogies, sadly common feature in the economic valuation debate. What has stricken me the most, however, is how Sagoff supports the frequent criticism that economic valuation of environmental public goods conflates the consumer and the citizen – he does it by invoking schizophrenia. Continue reading

Nothing to Lose But Credit Cards

The influential Spanish sociologist and network society researcher Manuel Castells paraphrased the famous quotation from Marx’ and Engels’ Communist Manifesto in a very interesting way: “Proletarians of all countries, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” became a sentence about today’s citizens of Europe, “They have nothing to lose but their cancelled credit cards!”. It is an expression meant to symbolize the failure of two intermingled societal constructs: financial capitalism and consumer society. Continue reading

Who Should Pay for Waste Management?

Waste is one of the largest environmental problems of modern economically advanced societies (and, since a part is dumped in the developing world, also there). On the one hand, recycling rates are relatively high in many countries (some 80% for most kinds of waste in Germany). On the other, this effect is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of trash society produces: both consumer waste (aluminium cans, plastic wrappers, printed advertisement, electronics with a lifetime of hardly more than a few months etc.) and production wastes. The latter is being better controlled and therefore, better managed in most cases. Furthermore, its amount depends directly on the amount of consumer products. So, the question emerges: how can we lower the production of the latter? And, at the same time, how can we lower the waste generation across the whole life-cycle? Continue reading

Shooting at the Earth

Last year, it was the 27th of September. This year’s Earth Overshoot Day, however, is the 22nd of August. Even though the methodology of the Global Footprint Network and similar projects is not completely unproblematic, the main message is clear: we are (ab)using the Earth’s resources in a way that is extremely unsustainable.

Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, marking the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. We are now operating in overdraft. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In last years, there were reasons to hope: Copenhagen, Durban, Rio +20, the election of Barack Obama for president of the United States, China’s seeming calming down in Cancún, progress in the EU… Still, the overall progress was terribly disappointing. We are still massively burning (and even subsidizing) fossil fuels, consumption levels still aren’t dropping in the developed world (while they are steeply rising in its developing parts), our agricultural systems remain, in spite of some progress toward agro-ecology, unsustainable (possibly because of most environmentalists’ sticking to the dogma of “bad biotechnology“)… Shortly, we, i.e. humanity as a whole, still apparently don’t care about our own and our children’s future. We prefer short-sightedness and short-term pleasure over reason and long-term survival. We prefer keeping our eyes closed and denying on what appears inconvenient to us, instead of facing the truth that we have to change. Indeed, the way we live will have to change anyway, as a result of the pressures we put over the Earth system. Wouldn’t it be easier to stop shooting at the Earth on our own, instead of waiting until lifestyle changes will become inevitable?

From Efficiency to Consistency, from Consistency to Sufficiency

It is a near-consensus that the way we produce and consume goods and services in modern economies is not sustainable. We systematically (and knowingly) overuse natural resources, ignore the social cost of (ab)using Nature’s services… So, the diagnosis is more or less uncontroversial and agreed upon. However, the question about the right therapy is still unsettled: how can we do it all in a better way? Generally, there are three strategies that are often named as necessary to achieve true sustainability: efficiency, consistency and sufficiency. Continue reading

Ideas Lost in Time

The process of societal change – in attitudes, institutions, values, relationship patterns etc. – is accelerating steadily in modern societies. Their members are losing their ability to accommodate to these changes. Furthermore, since our basic needs are fulfilled, we engage more and more in competition for goods that some can have – but not all at the same time, not without serious quality deterioration at least. Moreover, we are working much to be able to pay for consumer goods that we cannot really consume because our time budget does not allow for it any more. This does not stop us from desiring even more consumer foods and from uselessly working to earn the money we need to pay for them. At the same time, whereas GDP has been growing continuously (with only minor periods of regress) for years, the satisfaction we draw from our lives has been at best stable in that time, since our aspirations change as fast as the economy (and our incomes) grows. Last but not least, this growth in production and consumption, as well as population, has led to a terrible, unsustainable level of use of Nature’s resources and services, which can in effect lead to a break down of the world economy.

What do these insights have in common? They were all made some 40 years ago, and little seems to have changed to the better – rather the contrary. Continue reading

London Calling 2011

Last week London (among other British cities) faced a wave of terrible riots. Excited by the death of a minor criminal, they ended after 5 deaths, numerous injuries, 2000 arrests, and over £200 million worth of material damages. The riots have shown us that what sociologists thought possible in “failed states” only is thinkable in rich countries as well – chaos, looting, widespread violence… And all that without any political or social demands involved. A complete loss of control. Continue reading

New Paradigms Needed

Through all its history humanity has been facing challanges which often seemed unsolvable. Nevertheless, we have been able to achieve a solution every time so far – sometimes better, sometimes worse, but we’ve done it. Today again we face a whole spectrum of huge challanges: the climate change with all its facettes. Biodiversity reduction due to general damages to ecosystems all over the world. Poverty and undernourishment. There are many proposals how to solve these problems, many of them of a rather technological nature. But these won’t do. More is needed: new value systems. New paradigms. Continue reading

Living in the Over-developed World

While reading the collection of essays “Economics, Ecology, Ethics” edited by Herman Daly, in “Humanity at the Crossroads” by Paul and Anne Ehrlich I found a very interesting term – overdeveloped countries. Normally, when we speak about, say, the U.S. or Japan or the member states of the European Union, we call them “developed countries” or, as a whole, the “developed world” – in contrast to the “developing world”, consisting mainly of African, Latin American and Asian countries.

Can any country “overdevelop”, as the Ehrlichs implicitly claim? I would argue that yes: not only is this possible – it is actually the reality in many richer societies of this world. So, instead of calling them “developed”, we maybe should use the term “overdeveloped” instead. Continue reading

We Don’t Need Ever More

People don’t need enormous cars, they need admiration and respect. They don’t need a constant stream of new clothes; they need to feel that others consider them to be attractive, and they need excitement and variety and beauty. People don’t need electronic entertainment ; they need something interesting to occupy their minds and emotions. Continue reading

The TESCO Society

What hides behind the catchy title above is one of many possible perspectives one could take to look at the so called Western society. In my eyes, it is a very important perspective, with whose help one may explain a lot of (negative) phenomena in the world of the rich. Although, I admit, it does not provide a straightforward solution to any of them. Continue reading