Archive for the 'GDP' Category

Learning To Count Carbon

I posted my thoughts on Bear Stearns right after it collapsed. But a deeper problem even than the money-drunk nature of our culture is the way we count.

Our economic system hasn’t yet learned how to count in a way that reflects reality. Natural systems like air, soil and water (also known as the primary world) are holding up our whole civilization. Our economy is predicated on them and would collapse in their absence. Yet we assign them no value in our Gross Domestic Product, which unfortunately gives us every incentive to squander them in the course of making and consuming the things that are counted in GDP. Most of those things, in turn, contribute very little to our happiness.

The other thing we need to learn to count is carbon emissions. They’re the primary drivers of global warming and all of us are creating them every time we drive and fly and most of the time that we use electricity. If carbon emissions were counted and taxed we would create them more sparingly. They’re not taxed, partly because we haven’t figured out how to count them, and also because we lack the public and political will to do it.

All the market players, government, businesses and individuals alike, will be continuing to operate in economic unreality until we have a carbon tax and also accurate valuations of what natural resources actually contribute to the economy. The cost of these delusions, of our not knowing how to count, is exponentially escalating climate change with economic impacts that will make the Bear Stearns collapse look like a fond memory.

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Nader In The Race: Firebrand Or Fussbudget?

So Ralph Nader has thrown his hat in the ring, i.e. the presidential race. My question is whether that hat can ignite a fire under the feet of the other candidates to seriously consider a national carbon tax.

While Nader supports a carbon tax, the viable candidates do not. Rather, they have irresponsibly not taken global warming seriously. If there’s a more effective method than a carbon tax to reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to slow climate change, I haven’t yet seen it. A tax on carbon would slow our fossil fuel consumption and force us to innovate in the more sustainable directions of lowered consumption and renewable energy.

British Columbia enacted a carbon tax earlier this month, and the European Union started its carbon trading program in 2005. With all the brilliant minds, Nobel prize winners and history of innovation in our country, why are we laggards instead of leaders in dealing with climate change? John Edwards came the closest to a stand of integrity in this arena, and I regretted his exit from the ring.

Can Ralph Nader help us here? Two accounts, one for each side of his duality:

My friend Joe had dinner with him in Seattle in the 90’s. Joe said Nader kept dickering with the server over whether the fish was fresh or frozen, more rolls free of charge or not, and on and on, being a fussbudget. In contrast, I heard Nader speak in 2002 at Lewis and Clark college here in Portland, Oregon. But his haranguing style in this context was that of a big-picture warrior, attacking abuses, protecting the vulnerable, confronting powerful corporations.

There is no bigger-picture problem than global warming, no greater abuse than not curbing it, no way in which the poor are more vulnerable or corporations more needy of confrontation. If Ralph Nader can be an on-topic firebrand instead of an off-topic fussbudget, i.e. make a national carbon tax a hot topic, then I welcome his hat in the ring.

The Five-Carat Commute

On the first day of my new job in Salem, Oregon yesterday, I left my house in Portland before 6 a.m. and got home about 6:4o p.m. I spent three hours and forty minutes total on the commute, including walking to and from the Capitol Mall to my building.

Ye gads. To think that millions of people around the world do this for decades of their lives in order to earn a living and provide for their families. I respect the patience and tenacity this kind of commuting takes (I have usually taken the bus downtown or worked from home).

So why is mine the five-carat commute? My five carpool partners, who keep me from doing the long drive by myself, save me money and reduce my carbon footprint. (Well, I’ve met two of them so far, since not everyone goes to Salem daily.) They are friendly and fun and make the drive go by quickly. I alternate between conversation, reading and working on my laptop. My quality of life gets to remain high due to my carpool.

To find out how much money you could save by carpooling or using other travel options use this commute calculator. Note: I found my carpool through Carpool Match Northwest.

The Inconvenient Truth of the Diamond-Cut Life

Bad news here for the advertising industry, but good news for human beings and all other species. Research from many countries shows that after people’s survival needs and some reasonable pleasure needs are met, consumption piled-higher-and-deeper does NOT create more happiness. Rich is not great. Greed is not cool. Working harder might be moving you backward.

Inconvenient, at least for 20th century notions of economic growth and GDP, but true.

Hence my embracing of the diamond-cut life (partly inspired by Jared Diamond, whose latest book is Collapse). If happiness can be symbolized by a diamond that gets cut from the surrounding cultural rock of over-consumption, which things cut from our lives can best craft the diamond? What are the best uses of our time?

I want to hear from other people about their experiences. What’s true for me is that I am genuinely happy, as my household consumes significantly less than the average U.S. home. The real rock we’ve cut away is the need to impress anyone on material terms. Our house is small and modestly furnished but we host lots of visitors. I buy my clothes at Goodwill and look just fine. Our only car is a 15 year old Nissan Sentra that mostly guards the house while we take the bus to work.

Think of how little control corporations would have over us if we decided to put “time management ” in service to human happiness and conserving the earth’s resources rather than doing more work in less time to make more money to buy more stuff. Which reminds me of a favorite group whose motto is “More fun, less stuff”: Center for New American Dream.

Seeking A Diamond-Cut Life

I’m back after a break! Pulitzer prize winner Jared Diamond points out in the New York Times today that we in the U.S. are consuming 32 times more than the citizens of developing countries, and that that has to change because the earth’s resources are running out.

A little more surprisingly, he also says something I have been maintaining for years: our quality of life is not directly tied to our consumption. In other words, as research by Juliet Schor and others has shown, more stuff doesn’t make us happier. Much of the time, it’s just waste that doesn’t add value — although it hurts the planet.

All of us want to be happy. And probably we’d like to ‘do the right things’ in the process if we can. So, if you and I are average U.S. citizens, what’s the best route to consuming less? If happiness can be symbolized by a diamond that gets cut from surrounding rock, which things cut from our lives can best craft the diamond?

Here are my Top Five high-impact suggestions.

  1. Put ourselves on air-travel diets. Flying represents enormous fossil-fuel consumption. Buying carbon offsets for it, while not as good, at least brings us closer to paying the real cost of flying.
  2. Downsize our living space and make better use of what we’ve got. This doesn’t just apply to moving; we can shut off little-used rooms in winter and conserve heating fuel.
  3. Get a smaller vehicle or get rid of one vehicle altogether. Naturally this is only a viable option when public transit or carshare programs are available.
  4. Get a housemate (not necessarily a lover). Single-person households are a new fad in human history, and very resource-consumptive. This is also the best way for many single people to start saving for retirement.
  5. Put ourselves on car-mileage diets. Before grabbing the keys, think: How much is this trip really adding to our well-being?

I plan to write again on the diamond-cut life later this week. FYI, the best website I know of with good practical advice on consuming less is Wa$ted!.

Thanksgiving, Patriotism and Right-Sized Eating

For Thanksgiving I’ll suggest (and practice myself) a novel idea: to not eat a great deal. Just a normal-sized meal, with more sociability than usual.

“Unpatriotic!” I can imagine you criticizing me. “Killjoy!” “The economy would nosedive!” “Anti-consumption equals Anti-Christ!” (OK, pardon my drama.)

In truth, I’m very patriotic. I love our forebears. In fact I suggest we be more like them — by not being overweight and not wasting so many resources in the process. For example, it takes 441 gallons of water to produce a single pound of meat, versus seven gallons for a pound of wheat. If we’re wondering how Atlanta will resolve its drought problem, maybe reduced consumption of meat should go onto the table.

And the average food item Americans eat travels more than 1,500 fossil-fueled miles to reach us. My household subscribes to a local farm for weekly doorstep deliveries. Lowered dependence on foreign oil: very patriotic.

As for our GDP: to the degree that our national economy depends on overeating (and overconsumption in general) it is ill and needs to recover. A group of Americans resolving to eat moderately this Thanksgiving can be a step toward that recovery. Write in and take Alison Wiley’s Thanksgiving Moderation Pledge.

I’ll close with a little self-disclosure. When I eat normal-sized meals I retain my normal personality afterward: alert, friendly, affectionate. (At least my husband thinks so.) When I eat to excess I become slow and stupid, almost as if drugged. How about you?

I’m not a nutritionist, but from what I gather, human stomachs can’t digest enormous amounts of food dumped into them. It piles up and putrefies, making us gassy and grumpy. How patriotic is that? And how sexy?

Better Than Bigger: Getting to Enough

U.S. culture is finally getting that global warming is both a fact and serious trouble. Good, great, excellent.

The problem now is that most people think somebody else had better do something about it — in effect so that business can continue as usual.

I embrace the opposite of that attitude: that all of us can do something about it, and that ‘business as usual’ is at the core of the problem. Today I’ll bypass the wonk-speak about lowering our carbon footprint and drill down to something much more basic to global warming: the guiding myth in our national psyche that bigger is inherently better, and makes us more powerful.

Bigger houses and bigger cars — both a major U.S. trend in the past twenty years — are a big part of what’s driving global warming, due to their fossil-fuel-neediness. Every square foot of housing being heated, cooled and lit adds to our atmosphere’s burden, and so does every added increment of vehicle size. I suggest that bigger is the opposite of better or more powerful: it is needier.

The idea that bigger is better surely comes from the ancient, primitive part of our brains that motivated our ancestors to kill animals big and meaty enough to assure our survival. We’re animals too; I get it.

But we humans have flourished and we have to evolve differently now, as in leaping to a new level of thinking and motivation. The business-as-usual belief of bigger-is-better is taking us over the cliff of climate change.

I suggest that one of the most effective things we can do in any given day to combat global warming is to assure ourselves and those around us that we have enough right now. That we don’t need a bigger house, bigger or faster car or more current widget as much as we need a stable climate. That all those things are themselves needy of toxic fossil fuels, both in their production and use, and can even turn us into needier people as we grasp at them.

That, rather, what we already have is plenty, and enough. If that sounds like heresy, so at one time did the notion that the earth revolves around the sun.