Friday, June 6, 2008

Blah Blah Blah: a short summary of sustainability

This is the final paper for my sustainability class. It's not exceptional, but it's the only thing I've written in a while so here we go. Blah blah blah is a joke from a lecture we had from Dr. Bauman also known as the standup economist (you can youtube him and see the joke I'm talking about).

Each lecture had some good points and some areas where the speaker failed to address the complete picture. Overall I really enjoyed most of the presentations, but I was disappointed that they focused more on describing problems than solving them. Still, framing the question is half of the battle. Thinking about my own aspirations, I feel like what I’m really taking away from this class is a broader perspective.

Anne Steinemann explained how regulations on toxic chemicals are almost non-existent and therefore one can safely assume any given product is toxic. This of course begs the question, ‘If we’re already constantly surrounded by toxic chemicals why aren’t we experiencing any effects?’ Anne explained that there are two reasons: 1) our body will mask symptoms of chronic exposure and 2) symptoms may be non-specific and small, such as a generally weakened immune system. While I believe her, I am skeptical because she didn’t show us any studies of the effects of toxics on human health. One reason may have been that there are so many toxic chemicals with different effects. Toxics are especially worrisome when you consider that they undermine our society in ways that caused past societies to collapse (Karr2). She ended on a positive note, though, and explained what we can do to make our homes less toxic. Beyond personal choices the low level of companies reporting toxics in their products would inhibit my ability to focus on toxicity. The current political atmosphere may be too controlled by special interests to achieve effective toxic regulation policy, which is a political transition the world needs to make (Karr11).

The next speaker was Christine Ingebritsen, who informed us of some aspects of how Scandinavian countries serve as examples for the Green Movement. I felt like she glossed over too many details for the lecture to prove useful, but this was probably because she was condensing her quarter long class into one lecture for us. Beyond environmental-forward policy, Scandinavia enjoys cultural norms that value natural systems. Among other causes, Scandinavia may have developed a more environmental set of cultural values due to resource limitation early in their histories. Unfortunately resource limitation cannot be applied to the United States, to affect a values transition, because we do not want to hit that low point. Instead the Scandinavian value system really only highlights the power that a shift in cultural normality could create, and perhaps provide examples of specific morals. I may further research Scandinavia to see how it could benefit my efforts.

Professor Gloyd illustrated how ‘higher level’ driving forces must be addressed before common and preventable diseases can be effectively treated. He advocated lifting the World Bank restrictions on internal government spending in debt burdened countries, which would allow said governments to create adequate national healthcare systems, because NGOs focus on short-term and non-comprehensive solutions. To really cure diarrhea, pneumonia, etc. we would need to borrow pieces from the social (improving gender equality), economic (addressing poverty and debt), political (reducing the power of the World Bank) transitions and possibly even the values transition (valuing human welfare above free trade) (Kerr11). Personally, his story served more as a framework for presenting similar problems than as a call to arms since I won’t be working in either policy or medicine.

Professor Miller shared the recent discovery of his department with us; namely that marine tourism should consider environmental dimensions. In future presentations he should provide guidelines for what sustainable tourism is. In general, tourism is part of a consumption pattern that needs to be changed.

“Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization” was the title of Professor Montgomery’s latest book as well as his lecture to us. Having written a book on the subject, the lecture was remarkably succinct and informative. Montgomery proposes that poor agricultural techniques (primarily the plow) cause accelerated erosion that ultimately limits food production and puts a time limit on civilization. Adding further emphasis to this area of thought is the fact that per capita food production has been decreasing since 1984 (karr1).

Dr. Bauman reduced the sustainability crisis down to needing a carbon tax, which would make renewable energies competitive, which is something I’ve heard before. What I really took away from his lecture, though, was how harsh market transitions are. For instance, low wage workers often commute to work because it is too expensive to live in the cities where the work is. Imagine a low wage worker that commutes to work because housing is too expensive close to work. A gas price increase will provide incentive for her to stop commuting, but she has no capital to move and there may not be public transit to where she lives. If there are no alternatives and she doesn’t have a social safety net than it’s highly likely she will end up in poverty. Dr. Bauman suggested providing those negatively affected by the transition with finical help, but how do you make that happen?

Professor Westerman puts forth that waste in our current system is an opportunity to improve systems and make money. He is after all a business professor. He threw a list of potential tools to tackle the sustainable business problem at us; the tools I like best were cradle-to-cradle and life cycle assessment, both of which I had heard about before. I wish he would have gone into more detail about some of the tools that were new to me, such as ISO 14000. The critical take away for me were four communication strategies to approach businesses: surprise, crisis, voice of authority, and peer pressure. Professor Westerman himself has done some pretty audacious things to get companies to listen. To protest wasteful packaging, he has sent packaging back to the company.

After all this I’ve really decided that I need more education in terms of economics and business practice. Westerman proposed we need a genius to cook up a new value system as compelling as money, but I think we also need one to resolve the tragedy of the commons. Economic modeling in general seems weak and oversimplified, which I want to learn more about if not tackle myself. Even if we cannot accurately model human responses to market forces, it is important to consider all affected parties and craft solutions that will provide sustainable welfare for everyone. Obviously this will be easier when working on specific problems with the affected parties, but even then it will still be important to remember the boarder context that any problem falls into.