Sustainability?

May 27, 2012

I have been reading a lot about sustainability lately, trying to pin down what it really means.  I am doing this because I have grown tired of hearing the term bandied about thoughtlessly, used as a marketing slogan in my profession, used as a rallying cry for unthinking do-gooders in the public sphere, and because it is connected with ideas I find fascinating, i.e., the notions that we have to connect us with nature, and the notions we have of nature itself.  Two pieces I looked at are this booklet by a professor in England who’s specialty it is, and this article on ‘carrying capacity‘ by a human geographer at Berkley.

Th images at the head of this post represent the two paths we are told we can follow:  The first is that of bacteria reproducing in a petri dish, the population growing rapidly, then crashing – that’s the path we are supposedly on now; the second is the ‘closed loop’ of eco, bio, sustainable, new age, no growth economics that the prophets seek to bring us to.  The theological/ethical dimensions of the latter view are obvious simply from the array of images presented when you google ‘sustainability’ for images.

Mr. Jackson’s booklet (Prosperity without Growth) goes into great detail about the inequalities, inefficiencies and spiritual dogmas of our present cultural ecology of free enterprise capitalism and consumerism.  He tells that countries with much lower GDPs than the USA or UK have the same, or better!, life expectancies, same or better infant mortality rates, and that new measures of ‘happiness’ show no strong link between materialistic or consumer abundance and satisfaction.  Is this news?  Is this what the Sustainability Program amounts to – a plea to examine the nature of The Good Life, and to act accordingly?  Very old wine in new bottles.

For the record, I largely agree with this philosophic critique of our current social arrangements, but where I part company with the prophets is my belief that our current path IS sustainable, though not preferable (to me).  What these folks are doing is packaging an ethical, philosophical, moral, religious, spiritual and political point of view inside a pseudo-scientific theory.  The logic goes, if we do not change towards a sustainable path, we, human civilization, will crash like those one-celled creatures in the graph at top.  (The intellectual incoherence of this view is dissected in Nathan Sayre’s essay that I have linked to this post.)  Without the Damoclean sword of global meltdown hanging over us, why would anyone do anything to change?  Because society would be more just, more fair, more satisfying, less damaging to the ecological communities we cohabit with on Earth?  There’s too much money to be made to bother with that stuff!

So, what do we end up getting in the absences of a reasoned and organized attack on the status quo?  We get the same old economic system and its injustice and inequality, but we get bike-lanes (I like ‘em), ‘green products’, (I hate ‘em), tony new-urbanist developments (works for me), hipster eco-esthetic (I like to shop there) carbon footprinting (useless and deceptive) and so on…


Cranky on Consumerism…

April 29, 2012

crank   (krngk) n.

A device for transmitting rotary motion, consisting of a handle or arm attached at right angles to a shaft.
Informal:   A grouchy person; An eccentric person, especially one who is unduly zealous.

Back to one of my favorite topics for complaint:  It seems that every time I look at the news, especially the business news, everything is about the Internet.  (Surprise!)  I just want to find out whether the UK and Europe are imploding and all I see are articles about startups and IPOs for outfits selling gizmos that help us spend money, waste time, and gain access to more information, most of which is of no use to us, except as a way to help us spend more money and waste more time.  In the NYTimes, one academic jocularly speculated:

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, he went on, you won’t have to shop at all. Your vast piles of shopping data would be instead collected, analyzed and used to tell you exactly what you need: a new motorcycle from Ducati, perhaps, or purple rain boots in the next size for your growing child. Money will be seamlessly taken from your account. A delivery will arrive at your doorstep.

And if we could just figure out how to have machines make all the stuff for us, grow our food, and tend our bodies without having to move, we could just plug in and live virtually!

Don’t get me wrong – I love stuff.  I just spent hours shopping for a new pair of shoes made of Tyvek – looks really cool.  But I wouldn’t be destroyed if all these opportunities were taken away.  Is it my age?  I had a roommate once who thought of nothing but making money and buying. “That’s what man is,” he, a resolutely unphilosophical person told me.  “Man is a consumer.  He buys things.

When I was thirteen, I got a full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I recently discarded it, but I kept the A and Z volumes just as a reminder of happy times gone by.  I would start off looking something up, it would lead to something else, and something else again in another volume, and pretty soon hours had gone by while I ‘surfed’ the expanse of human culture, and I was left sitting on the floor surrounded by opened volumes.  Now I do it online.  I rather like doing it online, but I don’t kid myself that my experience is essentially any better.  Just faster, and more rich in media.  Some things I can find now with ease that I would have had to go far out of my way to get then…but that was part of the fun of it!  Something gained, something lost.  This is the way of life, but, not on the business pages.  How long before people start to get jaded?

A minority opinion, but not a solitary one.  The caveman at the left is the logo of Uncivilized Booksa small publisher of comics, that I discovered in Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD.  Yes, an actual store!  This comics artist, Tom Kaczynski, seems to be thinking the same sort of thoughts.  And I love that logo!  That’s me, but I wear a collar and carry a laptop as I face the day’s challenges of scratching a living from the earth.

In one of his comics, Kaczynski talks about Richard Florida, and his books on the rise of The Creative Class…new to me. But at the symposium I attended Friday at the Regional Plan Association in NYC, I felt like I was hearing what he was describing, at least at the morning session.  Bike paths, cultural diversity, cafes, restaurants (for the record:  I like all that stuff) capital chasing all those smart, talented, hip-and-with-it highly educated technology workers…  What must a city do to woo them to come and live in its precincts?  And what about the not-so-smart and not-so-hip or talented?

Mayor Bloomberg gave his “NYC is Great” (and so it is) speech, and remarked that the RPA has been around giving us great plans since 1929!  1929 gave us so many great things – he rattled off a few, including Scotch Tape.  Was it a subtle joke on his part that he omitted The Crash?

Once again, mes pauvres lecteurs, I call your attention to this brilliant piece of social commentary:  Flaubert on the Internet.

Rich Man, Ordinary Man, Banker Man, Thief…

October 5, 2011

Today, in the NYTimes Business section under the headline,  Banks in Europe Face Huge Losses From Greece, we find the following interesting tidbits (emphasis added):

While bank executives and government leaders have been reluctant to acknowledge that the hundreds of billions of euros of Greek debt held by financial institutions is worth far less than its face value, they are slowly accepting the grim reality

Hmm…isn’t the foundation of our economic system supposed to be:  you take a risk, you win or lose, you face the consequences.  Apparently, to paraphrase Leona Helmsley, that only applies to little people.

Then this:

“Once you take a write-down on Greek debt for Dexia [a major European bank], …it will be the taxpayer that pays for this.

Whoaa! Where does that come from?  Why not the owners of the bank?  And finally:

While the question remains whether taxpayers or financial firms will make up the difference, European authorities may be moving closer to a coördinated effort on the banks.

Yep, there’s that nagging question again.  Are we (the bankers) actually going to have to lose?!  The game is supposed to prevent that…for us!  This is the sort of thing that US commentary has castigated the Japanese about for many years.  If only they would get honest and face their losses, but no, there isn’t any transparency: it’s all rigged by the government that’s in bed with the bankers…  Sound familiar?

One reader commented on our situation here at home:

“A growing number of economists, and some voices within the International Monetary Fund, argue that banks need to formally acknowledge their losses to restore their credibility.”

This is something the US banks have never really done. They still have huge numbers of non-performing mortgages on the books that are listed as assets. Of course, this has been aided and abetted by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Fed, all in the hopes that a housing recovery that never materialized would solve the problem.

Ordinary people have to acknowledge their losses, lose their homes, forego college for their children, while banks pretend ‘face value’ is market value and squeeze the 95% of the population not in on the game to pay the difference.


Capitalism…Greed??

December 23, 2010

What a wonderful quote from the New York Times article on the boom-bust cycle in Nevada.

Robert A. Fielden, an architect and urban planner in Henderson, said the state has been particularly hurt by real estate speculators who flipped property for profit and then just walked.   Reflecting the despair that can be heard in the voices of even Nevada’s biggest boosters, he said:

 “We have never faced anything like this before – What we are living with now is, we let the free market reign without any controls at all. We talk about the United States being built on capitalism. But this wasn’t capitalism. This was greed.” 

Happy Holidays!


What do French workers want?

October 20, 2010

With all the coverage of the conflict in France between the unions and the government, I have heard little about what the real issues are.  Yes, the unions don’t want their members to be forced to wait until the age of 62 to get full retirement – now they retire at 60.  And yes, that would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe, so, aren’t they just damn lazy?  Surely, they must have a position to counter Sarkozy’s insistence that the state just can’t afford this anymore…

Well, apparently they do.  I found this interesting article about the conflict, and I have excerpted most of it here:

… many workers say they’re prepared to stay the course, in spite of perceptions that they are simply too lazy to accept what would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe.  Two years too many, workers say Jean-Pierre Lesouef, an electronics manager at the transportation giant Thalys, says he has already worked for 37 years and is too tired to work into his 60s.

“I’ve had enough,” he says. “When you’re at my age and you’ve worked as long as I have, you see if you want to work another two years.”

Some experts say complaints like Mr. Lesouef’s go a long way toward explaining why the proposal to add an extra two years to French working life has caused so much upset.  Annual studies for the European Commission looking at attitudes toward work show the French, along with the Italians and the Spanish, are among the unhappiest workers on the continent.

Henri Sterdyniak, an economist at the Paris-based Centre for Economic Research, blames a hierarchical work structure within French companies that rarely allows room for professional development or promotions. Performance reviews are rare and negotiations on working conditions or career paths practically are scarce.

“The French model dictates that if you have a certain diploma you will have a certain career, and if you don’t you will never climb the ladder,” he says. “The worker at the bottom feels like he is constantly squeezed and never consulted. By the end of his career he is exhausted and uninterested, so it’s no wonder he wants to leave.”

Worker satisfaction has also dropped since the 37-hour workweek was introduced, because most people are forced to do the same tasks but in less time, Mr. Sterdyniak says.

Workers like Daniel Quittot, an air conditioning technician, say they’re concerned they will be forced out of their jobs and unable to find new work well before they turn 62. “I’m afraid that if the retirement age goes up, I’ll have two extra years on unemployment and in the end I won’t have worked long enough to collect my full pension,” he says.

Sterdyniak says Mr. Quittot has legitimate fears. Surveys show that unemployment among French workers over 55 rose dramatically when the retirement age was reduced to 60 from 65 in 1983 and is now among the highest in Europe. Although many want to work up to age 60, French employees are on average forced out of their jobs at 58.

“There is a real problem of age discrimination right now in France,” says Sterdyniak. “Unless that changes with the pension reform, we are going to create a whole new problem of unemployment.”


Folly at NYC Ground Zero

September 18, 2010

In 18th century landscape architecture, a folly is a whimsical, usually ornamental building often in a rather outlandish style set in a garden.  The British were particularly fond of them.

In an earlier post, I remarked on a different sort of folly related to the rebuilding of the WTC site.  Today, the business columnist in the NYTimes, Joe Nocera, has an excellent analysis of the absurdity underlying the Freedom Tower now rising at the site.  All this in a town and country that prides itself on hard-headed economic analysis in the context of the free market.   I wonder how the local Tea Party members will feel if they have to pay more to cross the bridges in order to foot the bill for this folly.

A view of the behemoth rising outside my office window:


Capitalist Roaders

May 27, 2010

From today’s New York Times:  Trampled in a Land Rush, Chinese Resist

I shudder to think of the kickbacks and payoffs being made to Party officials at all levels as the gold rush in land displaces ordinary Chinese farmers and city dwellers.  It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the Party or the Tycoons who are stealing from the people, as long as somebody is doing it!
We’ve been there before
 


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