Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The balancing act of sustainable waste management

The need for the sustainable management of waste is becoming more important with the opportunity to conserve materials, landfills competing for valuable land, and the health, environmental and aesthetic impacts of ineffective disposal methods. Waste managers are increasingly challenged to create and maintain sustainable systems that are financially and economically affordable, acceptable by society, environmentally effective and practically implementable.

For a short review on the costs and benefits of waste management options and many other very valuable contributions to sustainable waste management, see this newly released Waste Revolution Handbook.

Image: earth911.com

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Nelson Mandela's struggle for a garden on Robben Island" or "Why it makes sense to invest in ecosystem services"

It was not for nothing that Nelson Mandela fought for permission to grow a garden on Robben Island.

In his words: “To plant a seed, watch it grow, to tend it and then harvest it, offered a simple but enduring satisfaction. The sense of being the custodian of this small patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”

The simple act of gardening helped Nelson Mandela sustain his longer–term perspective, re-emphasised a sense of responsibility beyond himself and provided a link to freedom. Powerful stuff!

Nelson Mandela’s garden story is beautiful and gripping, but certainly not unique. The link between healthy nature and human wellbeing is well-documented.

It makes sense to invest in ecosystems services.

For the full text of remarks at a recent gathering of the Cambridge Resilience Forum read here.

Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Green Jobs at micro level in Africa

As occasional guest blogger (after a bit of a break), I wish to share a few links I have come across recently about Green Jobs in Africa on a micro level, triggered by coming across this interesting company merging green jobs with low-impact design and living: touchingtheearthlightly.com
and a pre-announcement for the Green Economics Conference in Cape Town in January 2011.

While at a macro level the topic of Green Jobs is widely debated (see previous entries on Sustainable Options and some information from UNEP), others simply get on with the job of creating green jobs at the micro or local level.

Some interesting examples of creating local green jobs in Africa, include:

Gerhard Buttner

H/T planeta.com video, Afrika Tourism

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Crowd wisdom on who will win the FIFA World Cup 2010

What is the track record of crowds predicting the outcome of major events like the FIFA World Cup?

This is what Lucker et al wrote in their article On the Forecast Accuracy of Sports Prediction Markets:

In this paper, we present the results of an empirical study that compares the forecast accuracy of a prediction market for the FIFA World Cup 2006 to predictions derived from the FIFA world ranking and to a random predictor. We find that prediction markets for the FIFA World Cup outperform predictions based on the FIFA world ranking as well as the random predictor in terms of forecast accuracy.

So, what are some sports prediction markets saying? Inkling Public Prediction Market: Brazil, closely followed by Argentina.

And, yes some experts are completely off the mark.

I still think Holland can do it. Lucker also warned against that.

FIFA, soccer or country?

The World Cup is in full swing. Who gets the attention - FIFA, soccer itself or the country?

Based on an Internet search volume index, Google Trends sheds some light:

south africa

Although attention to FIFA is generally lower than the game of soccer itself, it is much higher relative to game and country during both the World Cups of 2006 and 2010.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Five systemic challenges

In a recent panel discussion at the South African chapter of the World Future Society we discussed the top five systemic challenges facing South Africa. From the perspective of environmental sustainability here is my five:

First, the uneasy relationship between coal and carbon. Much of the electricity in major developing countries such as China and also South Africa is expected to come from coal. The energy returned on energy invested ratios for coal are still higher than other energy feedstocks. The IEA expects that coal will continue to play a major role in world energy supply for many decades to come. South Africa’s own energy plans include coal as the primary source for electricity generation in the forseeable future. Around a third of total carbon emissions in the world is from coal. This number is higher in South Africa. Coal provides three-quarters of energy supplied in SA. How and when the costs of carbon constraints will seep through into South Africa’s energy system, and what the technological and behavioural responses will be is a key trend to watch and a key challenge to manage.

Second is the nexus between changing climates, the availability of water and the need for more productive food systems. South Africa, apart from some Middle Eastern countries, have one of the lowest amounts of renewable freshwater available to its people. This amount has also been drastically reduced in the last few decades. Food security in Southern Africa is a major problem, with well over 100 million people malnourished in the region. The pressure for an African revolution in food production is large, but this have to be managed within the context of high vulnerability to climatic change and increased competition for water resources. Desalination is fastly becoming an option for coastal towns and cities.

Third is the impact of Sino-African relationships on Africa’s, as well as South Africa’s, development paths. Africa is seen as a preferred supplier of commodities, most notably oil, but also cotton, diamonds, logs and other base metals. The ecological costs of China’s growth have been well documented as well as China’s drive towards investment in cleaner technology in recent years. Africa’s long history of natural resource exploitation and the mixed signals from China on environmental management needs to be further unpacked as it may have important consequences for the sustainability of South Africa’s development path.

Fourth, South Africa’s water system needs urgent attention. Water services in only 11% of municipalities in the country are fully functional. Almost half are either at high risk or critical. A report on the state of about half of our sewage treatment works further revealed that only around 7% qualified for so-called Green Drop Status, which is a close measure of international accepted norms. The problem of decanting acid mine drainage looms, where the high amounts of salts and heavy metals associated with it will threaten downstream irrigation and other water users.

Fifth, one of the downside’s of South Africa’s recent economic boom was a massive pile of waste. Landfills are under pressure, and alternative waste management options are actively seeked. The costs of waste management are likely to rise while the country is managing the transition to waste avoidance, reduction and recycling.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A waste water crises?

The existence of a waste water crises is denied despite mounting evidence of mismanagement and neglect in waste water treatment systems.

Crises and denial has been a persistent theme in the last few years and one that was explored in an earlier blogpost two years ago (see Denialism and crises). This is what we wrote back then:

At least we have certainty about one thing. The next time there will be critique on a politically sensitive issue in South Africa, chances are good that it will be denied. It becomes a trend:

HIV does not cause AIDS (see here and here). There is no electricity crises (see here, that was 2006!). Poverty in South Africa is not increasing (see earlier blogpost). There is no crises in Zimbabwe (see here). There is no looming water crises (see here), and the latest:

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has rejected the findings of a report showing SA is not on track to meet its millennium development goals for reducing child and maternal mortality. (see article and earlier blogpost)

This trend is continuing as a crises in SA's sewage system is denied. Contrary to what the results of an audit by government on 53% of South Africa's 852 waste water treatment works tells us. Here are a few snippets from Politicsweb on the issue:

only 32 of them qualified for so-called Green Drop status, broadly equivalent to them complying with international standards

hundreds of millions of litres of untreated or inadequately-treated sewage is being illegally discharged into rivers and streams around the country each day, mainly by small town municipalities.

The SA Medical Journal's news section, Izindaba, warned in August last year that the country was "sitting on a health time bomb caused by outright neglect of its water and sanitation systems".

85 percent of South Africa's sewage system infrastructure was "dilapidated" and the overall neglect of the country's water and sanitation systems "will cost R56 billion to repair"

the minister said she did not know if the funds could be obtained.

reported increases in diarrhoeal diseases and child deaths to areas of the country where sanitation and water systems have broken down.

only two municipalities had been charged, one in North West and another in the Free State.

Green Drop Report strongly identifies skills shortages at waste water treatment plants as a major problem, saying these exist at all levels of management.

The real crises is one of leadership. The disturbing trend is that this crises seems to be deepening.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On electricity tariffs and fossil fuel subsidies

With the rising costs of fossil fuels and fossil-fuel based electricity generation, disparities in electricity tariffs and persistently high fossil-fuel subsidies are coming under the spotlight. This has important implications for South Africa's possible economic development trajectories.

From Moneyweb (see also Politicsweb with a link to the leaked dossier):

The Democratic Alliance (DA) can this morning reveal a secret 291 page Eskom dossier, which provides definitive proof, amongst other things, that Eskom has been charging vastly discounted electricity tariff rates to companies that provide little or no benefit to the South African economy. The document was leaked from high level officials in Eskom to the DA and we made use of its information yesterday to question the acting CEO in the portfolio committee on public enterprises. The chairperson of the portfolio committee tried to tell us not to use the report, but we are today releasing it in full, because we believe its contents are of manifest importance to the South African public. This report stands alongside the now notorious Olsen Report - also released publicly by the DA - in that it provides cast iron evidence of the extent of mismanagement at Eskom, the ANC government's complicity in it, and the damage that is being done to the South African economy as a consequence.

The signs were there much earlier as reported in the press (see here for example) and also on this blog in the context of potential additional carbon costs:

At an average emission rate of close to 0.9kg CO2/Kwh and a price for carbon between $20 and $40 per tCO2 start penciling in an additional cost of between 14-28 cents per Kwh ($1 = R7.5). To place this in perspective Business Day reports: Eskom is understood to have guaranteed the Coega project electricity at 14c/kWh.

Who pays the rest?

What was meant as a rhetorical question way back then is coming clearly in focus now. Of course, we South African citizens have been paying the rest, directly through our electricity bills and indirectly, with other global inhabitants, through the impacts of a changing climate.

Also this morning in my inbox was a study on worldwide fossil fuel subsidies - amounting to a whopping $500 billion annually. According to the report, South Africa subsidised electricity costs at almost $10 billion annually. It was not clear from the report what exactly went into this $10 billion, but that this is substantial is without doubt.

Cheap electricity used to be an integral part of South Africa's industrial policy. With rising electricity prices and potential carbon liabilities the costs of such a policy is becoming rapidly clearer. What the implications are and whether this creates space for new opportunities has been the focus of debate for some time now.

In this time of transition towards a new electricity regime expect more painful stories and hope for wise leadership in seeing opportunities.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Notes on China and Christianity

The state in which Christianity in China finds itself is not obvious for the casual observer. On face value worship is openly allowed (I have attended mixed Chinese-English services for example) and churches are evident everywhere. At the same time one hears of persecution, torture and even executions amongst Christians in China.

Christianity in China is a broad term including Catholics, Protestants and a handful of more Eastern Orthodox Christians. These denominations are controlled by government through several councils and associations. There are also independent house-churches independent from government. It is these house churches who are under pressure.

In a book openly available in Chinese bookshops “Christianity in China” and published by the China Intercontinental Press, author Luo Weihing describes the history of Christianity in China. According to this officially endorsed version, what started out as English missionary work early in the 19th century has grown to 3 million in 1979 and an estimated 16 million Christians in 2002. The composition of Christianity also changed from elderly, women, illiterates and the sick earlier to a larger ratio of middle-aged, youth and intellectuals in the 1990’s. What these numbers do not reveal is the amount of Christians in house churches; one source estimating this to be between 20 at 50 million people growing at 7% pa (see “Acquinted with Grief” by Alan Harvey).

In the transitions towards communist China, Luo describes how as a “foreign religion” Christianity posed many contradictions for Chinese people:

“ Enlightened by Premier Zhou, the Christian leaders realized that the difficulties Christianity faced were due to its notorious history being connected to Western colonialism”

That was 1950 and led to the emergence of the principles of self-rule, self-reliance and self-development in Chinese Christian churches. Around two-thirds of Christians at that time subscribed to this “independence under communist rule”. Patriotism, cutting of ties with Western churches and an anti-US campaign for example quickly became part of official Chinese Christianity. During the cultural revolution from 1966-1976 the Christian churches were closed and religious activities banned. The restoration of these arrangements started again in earnest in 1980.

The 200 000 or so Christians who did not subscribed to this independence under communist rule, formed the backbone of the house churches. The book “Acquinted with Grief” by Alan Harvey describes the role of Wang Mindao, also called the “Dean of the House Churches” and the founder of the Chinese Church in Christ. Wang was arrested and imprisoned for over twenty years up to his release in 1980. He argued that if Christians would go in a union with the state, ideological pressure would gut the church of its message and mission.

In the early 1980’s thousands of house church leaders were sent to labour camps. Up to 1989, two years before Wang’s death, pressure on the house churches has eased. In the build-up to the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, the ruling Party’s influence eroded and Christian churches grew. Interpreted as a challenge to authority, house church leaders were once again under threat and house church leaders were send to labour camps (2001) or even executed (2006).

It appears as if the communist state wants to portray a sense of tolerance, but at times startle with their fierce crackdowns on those who are independently organised.This includes the house churches, but also other so-called ‘evit cults’ such as the Fulan Gong.

Understanding these contradictory signals from the Party would require a deep study on its roots. One explanation is that an off an atheistic and materialistic state irked by the superstition and anti-scientific behaviour of ‘evil cults’. At a deeper level I think it has all to do with an uncontrollable grass-roots influence on society which seems to challenge the authoritarian and nationalistic nature of the Party. China wants to be the best and biggest in the world, an urge born from sources such as the historical oppression of Chinese by foreigners, the failure of Mao’s 20th century communism and the human urge for absolute power. Earlier rebellions were at times associated with some form of Christianity as well.

In such a context it is not a big step to reason that Christianity, if not contained within and submerged to the purpose of the Chinese state, will be a potentially destructive social force that Party leaders will have to deal with. Given the nature of Chinese ambition, the history of rebellion, the eroding powers of the Party internally, the rise of Christianity and the rise of Chinese power internationally one can reasonably expect a continuous heavy hand on Christians who function independently from the state-controlled churches.

This is not the only way though. One can only hope that the churches will be allowed to show what it really means to be Christian in this world. If Christian house churches are allowed to practice their believes in the open, it will be for all to see that this is not a revolutionary challenge to the state. I agree with Thomas Harvey that the Party leadership need to think seriously about giving Christians freedom to really be self-organised, self-ruled and self-reliant. This will be a tell-tale investment in the harmonious society they so much want.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lesotho and leadership

Today we climbed Thaba Bosiu, the famous mountain in current Lesotho which used to be the famous King Moshoeshoe I's natural fortress. With lots of grazing and a good source of water it proved to be resistant to Zulus, Ngunis, Boers and Brits.  When eventually the Boers did start to seriously threaten the kingdom, Moshoeshoe diplomacy saved the day. Basutoland was placed under British protection, paving the way for a fully independent Lesotho in 1966. Some still refer to Moshoeshoe as Africa's greatest leader

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa...

From RePec an article highlighting the importance of governance and institutions in development success:

By:Naudé, Wim
Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa are sub-Saharan African countries that stand out for their development progress. Each of these countries has succeeded against the odds, against expectations. This paper synthesizes the common ingredients of these countries’ success, and derives lessons. It concludes that smallness, landlockedness, tropical location, distance from world markets, racism, colonialism and other challenges can be overcome through appropriate institutions, governance and good economic policies.
Keywords:sub-Saharan Africa, development, success, country role models

See also earlier blogposts "Unmasking Africa's seven success stories" and "Go Gabon"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Quote of the day: The future of capitalism

"Coming back to the question whether capitalism is failing, the discussions and findings in the papers in this issue suggest that capitalism is here to survive but the role played by governments is likely to increase over time."

Future of capitalism: Is it failing?
Ali M. Kutan
Economic Systems, Volume 34, Issue 1, March 2010, Pages 1-2

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A new era of complexity in economics

A new working paper on the era of complexity in economics:

By:David Colander
Richard P.F. Holt
J. Barkley Rosser
This article argues that the neoclassical era in economics has ended and is being replaced by a new era. What best characterizes the new era is its acceptance that the economy is complex, and thus that it might be called the complexity era. The complexity era has not arrived through a revolution. Instead, it has evolved out of the many strains of neoclassical work, along with work done by less orthodox mainstream and heterodox economists. It is only in its beginning stages. The article discusses the work that is forming the foundation of the complexity era, and how that work will likely change the way in which we understand economic phenomena and the economics profession.

Click here for full PDF.

For earlier blogposts on the topic of complexity in cities see here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Energy transitions: insights from almost 30 years ago

It could have been written today:


John D. Sterman

The economy is likely to face a prolonged period of economic

vulnerability due to the continued depletion of nonrenewable resources, slow

development of alternative sources, and lags in the adjustment of energy

consumption to higher prices. The magnitude and duration of the vulnerability

is strongly influenced, however, by the technological and institutional

charactersitics (sic) of alternative energy sources...

...Neither energy planning nor economic policy can be conducted

in isolation from the other, or without consideration of the disequilibrium

dynamics of the transition.

Click here for full PDF.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Food miles or fair miles

I wish to thank Martin for the opportunity to be guest blogger here again, following a few entries from me in the past (mostly Africa and sustainable tourism related). I wish to this time revisit the slightly related topic of food miles and share a recent report of Oxfam and IIED called "Fair miles - recharting the food miles debate" that focuses on African fruit and vegetable exports to the UK.

As the world continues to grapple with climate change, the “buying local” and “food miles” concepts are intuitively appealing, but especially in colder climates (where it is most popular) it is flawed and simplistic based on a false assumption that transport is the only or major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. This ignores the complexity of the food chain from the seed to the plate. Among the more obvious examples is the energy-intensive industrial-scale cultivation in greenhouses having far more environmental impacts than the African low carbon small-scale producer (with a lot of help from the sun).

Some interesting extracts from the report:

"A tomato grown in Essex in the UK is not necessarily more environmentally friendly... if that Essex tomato needed energy-intense greenhouse cultivation to survive. There are, too, other environmental impacts, such as fertiliser use and soil degradation" (p.9)

"Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) — a UK initiative studying greenhouse gas emissions from the food system — led a recent lifecycle analysis of these emissions in the UK. It suggests that transport accounts for about 10 percent of the food system’s emissions." (p.16)

In contrast:

"Agriculture is a top contributor... according to DEFRA, for 36 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food consumption in the UK" (p.18).

Even "shopping, storage and preparation" (p.27) accounts for more than transport.

"The vast majority of UK farms derive inputs from outside the UK, and consequently are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that occur outside their locality as well as outside the UK. For many foods, this poses serious questions about their ‘local’ credibility" (p.14)

"To begin to fully understand the social and environmental effects of our food choices, we need to take a look at the entire food supply chain — from farm to manufacturer, to wholesaler or distributor, to retailer, to individual — and the energy use, emissions, and livelihood opportunities associated with each step of that convoluted journey" (p 13)

To really drive home the message that we need to be more holistic than counting the “food miles”, the livelihood dimension is added as final element in the last quote above. The report concludes:

"Kenyans contribute very little to the global emissions burden. And what is more, the entire airfreight trade in fruits and vegetables between the UK and Kenya adds a mere 0.1 per cent to the UK’s total emissions. Given the industrialised world’s historical responsibility for emissions, and its current high per capita emissions, is reducing its carbon footprint from 10.60 to 10.59 tonnes really worth imperilling 1 to 1.5 million livelihoods?" (p.33)

This trade-off is the kind of question that environmental economists need to explore further. Are we in a real inevitable trade-off situation, or is there even a way of minimizing carbon emmisions from African agriculture for export without affecting livelihoods?

Some related articles on this topic from Times online, Prospect magazine and a UK government report from DEFRA and DFID. (Guest blog contribution by Gerhard Buttner: Development and Ecotourism Consultant - South Africa, Mexico and the UK)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Three months of Tweeting

africaeconomist spent nearly three active months in the Twitterverse. This is a short account of my experiences and might be informative to those who may think whether it is really worth the effort (like myself 3 months ago).

Statistics. Send out 272 tweets, 4.6 tweets per day, most early morning before 9am.
My top 5 Twitter words are: icio (referral from delicious account), climate, copenhagen, china and oil. Africa does not follow far behind. This does not surprise me at all. The focus of my work is on Africa's development challenge, with a specific interest in the intersection of economy, development and ecology. Trends in 'oil', 'climate' and 'china' will certainly have a profound impact on Africa's development trajectory in future.

Time. It takes time, but not nearly as much as I thought. If one is used to RSS reading and blogging, to Tweet does not come at a lot of additional effort.

Content. I am very surprised in the good content people generally tweet about. Twitter offers far much than the " I feel gloomy today, and you?" kind of conversations. I still rely a lot on RSS feeds though. Most disciplinary journals have also not joined the Tweeting yet.

Twitter has without doubt changed the way information flows and does have an impact on how we learn. It can support collaboration and understanding. It does come with new responsibilities though. Deep thinking, consulting, researching and Twittering at the same time requires discipline. Technological addiction looms everywhere and Twitter addiction is no exception.

How some people can honestly keep up with thousands of tweets still remains a mystery to me. Maybe the objective is not to collaborate or to be better informed. With all those lists and rankings on performance already available online status is probably part of the answer.

The Twitter elite, however, seems to be mainly organisations and people in the business of communication - containing many news agencies and marketeers. For them, it is part of the job, and Twitter provides just another outlet. Hats of to them who have carved out a niche in an area of 75 million accounts and 15 million active Tweeters.

These numbers sound impressive, but are still much less than other social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Slack growth in Twitter do raise concern about marginalization though. I'll certainly keep an eye on that.

Image: dewaldp

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Science and policy: a two-way street

An exchange of words between an imminent economist and a policy maker from an insightful article on the The Oil Drum.

The economist:
Jeffrey Sachs, economic advisor to the UN, in his recently published article, Fixing the Broken Government Policy Process , articulates four manifestations of the breakdown in Washington:
1. Inability to focus beyond the next election
2. Decisions are made through negotiations with those who will be funding the next election (i.e. industry lobbyists)
3. Technical expertise is ignored or bypassed
4. The public is largely excluded from the process

The policy maker:
From Debbie Cook former Mayor and Councilmember of Huntington Beach, CA from 2000-2008 and a US Congressional Candidate; here is my prescription for scientists, professors, and engineers:
1. Participate in the public discourse
2. Publicly challenge your peers who put forward junk science
3. Be mindful of fallacies in your own assumptions
4. Relationships are primary and every policy is derived primarily from relationships, not facts.
To each critic sitting in their ivory tower, I challenge you to create the conditions for these relationships to flourish.

An important way to bridge the science-policy gap is to build relationships and to communicate facts and alternatives in a concise way. Talking about a clash of cultures!

See also earlier blogpost: Policies for a complex and dynamic world

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mandela's persistent popularity

as measured by Internet traffic.

From Googletrends a picture on relative worldwide traffic on a few Southern African leaders:

Scale is based on the average worldwide traffic of robert mugabe in all years. Learn more

jacob zuma
robert mugabe
nelson mandela
thabo mbeki


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Quote of the day: Entropy and physical limits

In terms of entropy, the two most important physical limits are local over-heating due to limited entropy export capacity and the minimum entropy reduction requirement for concentration of very dispersed materials. The first may be a problem for the local environment around power plants and in cities. For the Earth as a whole, the limit on the rate of entropy export is inessential.


Entropy and economic processes — physics perspectives by Tomas Kåberger and Bengt Månsson, Ecological Economics Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2001, Pages 165-179

Isolated systems may face absolute limits and 'collapse' under the weight of increased entropy. Open systems, like the Earth, with external sunlight and dissipating heat to space, does not.

Transit delays impacts on African exports

By:Freund, Caroline
Rocha, Nadia
This paper examines the effects of transit, documentation, and ports and customs delays on Africa’s exports. The authors find that transit delays have the most economically and statically significant effect on exports. A one-day reduction in inland travel times leads to a 7 percent increase in exports. Put another way, a one-day reduction in inland travel times translates to a 1.5 percentage point decrease in all importing-country tariffs. By contrast, longer delays in the other areas have a far smaller impact on trade. The analysis controls for the possibility that greater trade leads to shorter delays in three ways. First, it examines the effect of trade times on exports of new products. Second, it evaluates the effect of delays in a transit country on the exports of landlocked countries. Third, it examines whether delays affect time-sensitive goods relatively more. The authors show that large transit delays are relat ively more harmful because of high within-country variation.

This is a key issue in the food security question (see here for earlier blogpost on the determinants of hunger in SADC).

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Easter Island, societal collapse, the ecological crises and the state of economics

I have taken some time of to reflect on the ecological crises. My companion, amongst many others, was Ken Peacock, Living with the Earth. An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy. It contains the stories of collapse in ancient Phoenician society as documented by Vernon Carter and Tome Dale and Eastern Island as written by Jared Diamond.

Although very interesting to read, it struck me that these case studies are illustrating only a very particular view on the ecological crises. This approach emphasises that society and social structures are underpinned, influenced and shaped by independent biophysical factors and forces. The line of argument in both articles is more or less that both the Phoenicians and Eastern Islanders were expanding their population and/or economic power in the face of obvious resource constraints. Their myopic focus brought destruction and ultimate collapse and their stupidity is there for all to see. It is implicated that we are no different and that these examples are chilling case studies of mankind’s current senseless race towards an ecological doomsday. It is a narrative of environmental mortality, and the main culprit, especially for Diamond, lies in overpopulation. Deforestation, soil erosion, unsustainable agricultural practices such as goats on marginal lands are cited as the ecological triggers for collapse which in turn are caused by the intrusion of ever-expanding human populations.

Before reflecting further on these two articles I first want to take a step back into the history of economic thought. The close etymological basis of the words economics ‘oikonomia’ and ecology ‘oikology’ is well-known. What is not so well known, at least outside of the field of economics, is that economics has long since developed in an empirical direction, as based on the approach used in the physical sciences. The idea of ‘nomos’, which was still in inherent in the earlier classical political economy, lost its allure. Economics, at least the dominant neo-classical version of it, become empirical, mathematical, reductionist and libertarian. Its moral philosophy rested in the self-interest of individual agents. Natural resources and the environment were assumed to be in abundant supply, and on the bigger scale of wealth creation, it did not really matter either.

This has not always been the case. In earlier schools of economic thought, especially the Physiocrats, agriculture was seen as the only really productive sector that could generate a surplus. This link to land was still important for later classical economists (Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Mill and Marx), but it was postulated that surplus is derived from broader production, including factors such as labour and capital. The idea of a natural law, pertinent in the developing physical sciences, was vigorously applied into economic thinking. State regulation was frowned upon as working against the natural forces of enterprise, the results of which is measured as economic growth.

The detachment of wealth creation from agriculture and later land in general, is in my opinion, an important feat in economic thinking. That the physical and material inputs of land and natural resources became effectively ignored in later neo-classical economic thinking is not. What is at least needed at this stage is an acceptance of the laws of thermodynamics, and an acceptance of an “external” ethics, which may culminate through positive (man-made) law. The physical reality is that materials and energy, at least in the forms we know them, are running out. Sunlight provides the ultimate source of energy, and the socio-ecological transition towards using energy “that is closer to the sun” will become an important economic imperative. We are not necessarily talking about absolute limits in the strictest sense here, but of limits in our ability to translate sun-power into energy. It is further not only the supply of energy and materials that matter, but also the rate at which by-products such as waste and pollution can be absorbed by nature. This transition may need to be sped-up in the face of these increased loadings of waste and pollution into the natural environment.

Socio-economic forces may again have a profound impact in how mankind is adapting to the ecological crises. Eastern Island, in fact, may have also experienced a socio-economic transition, one untold in the narrative of human ecology. Recent research published in the American Scientist argued that the island was populated by humans far later than initially thought, that alien rats brought havoc even before the island was really populated, and that it was the contact with Europeans, with their diseases, the ensuing conflict and enslavement which brought the societal collapse.

Tales of ecological destruction and human greed are certainly valid in certain contexts, as are tales of genocide and collapse, I have some difficulties with the current meta-narrative as presented by scholars such as Diamond. I have also serious reservations on the current neo-classical economic thought that ignores the importance of nature, and more, that dismisses the idea of ‘oikonomia’, or the management or stewardship of our dwelling or household. Human ecologists are right in seeing the deficiencies of economic culture, but in their solution portray a kind of biophysical moral philosophy which I find hard to accept.

What this all means and what the implications are for an acceptable socio-ecological theory forward is something that needs much more reflection.

Of to another few days of hard reading...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Economists are stingy

The abstract of the study:
A substantial body of research suggests that economists are less generous than other professionals and that economics students are less generous than other students. We address this question using administrative data on donations to social programs by students at the University of Washington. Our data set allows us to track student donations and economics training over time in order to distinguish selection effects from indoctrination effects. We find that economics majors are less likely to donate than other students and that there is an indoctrination effect for non-majors but not for majors. Women majors and non-majors are less likely to contribute than comparable men.