UNICEF has started a campaign to end open defecation (pooping in the open air). Their mascot for this endeavor is a professional boxer/terrorist made of personified poo.
See boxer Melanie Subono go toe-to-toe with the oversized Mr. Hankey.
Talking about poop is icky so people generally avoid it, but UNICEF is bringing it to the table (gross) because over 30% of the world doesn’t have access to sanitary toilets. In Indonesia alone, over 50 million people practice open defecation. Open defecation has serious consequences including the increased risk of avoidable diseases like cholera and dysentery. Open defecation is expensive to fix though.
Funding Basic Sanitation
Imagine providing toilets to two-and-a-half billion people. How does something like that get funded? You could increase taxes on corporations and make them pay for it, I guess, but that doesn’t usually seem to work. Increase taxes too much and corporations will leave. Plus, since corporations have a lot more clout than those without access to running water and a proper toilet, there’s little chance that the impoverished won’t be left high and dry with that approach.
You could do what many countries often do when faced with large public works projects: go into debt and let the income of the country pay the interest on the amount owed, that could work, but what if we could pay for it all without going a dime into debt? What if we could build sanitary infrastructure and have it pay for itself? Here’s another thought. I bet you that real estate is pretty cheap in areas that don’t have access to running water. Why? It isn’t very desirable to live there. If they were to tax the land and use the revenue to build a sewage system, the land value would go up. Now it’s a little more desirable to live there. This would make the land value go up, and this would increase the revenue available for sanitation -a virtuous cycle. In fact, you could apply that system anywhere. A government could make any public infrastructure self-financing by just taxing the value of land. Learn more about how to create the virtuous cycles that alleviate poverty.
As the wind power industry grows, those 100-foot pinwheels are becoming more and more an accustomed part of the landscape. They could soon, however, be a thing of the past. Vortex Bladeless, a Spanish company, is a proposing a radical new way to generate energy from the wind. The bladeless turbines, elongated upside-down cones that they say look like “asparagus,” not only look completely different from conventional turbines but harness wind energy in an innovative way.
The basic idea of the Vortex is similar to that of conventional wind turbines–use the kinetic energy of air currents to generate electricity. This new invention, however, achieves this through an altogether different mechanism. Instead of the rotation of propellers, the Vortex uses “vorticity,” the aerodynamic effect that creates a pattern of spinning vortices when wind breaks against a solid structure. When wind is strong enough, vorticity causes an oscillating motion in the structures it encounters. Engineers and architects have been battling this for ages, working to design buildings and other structures that resist these wind whirlpools, which caused the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.
Studies show that the Vortex captures thirty percent less wind power than the conventional design. However, twice as many Vortexes as propeller turbines can fit into the same space, which means a net 40% greater ratio of energy production to land area. The Vortex has no bolts, gears, or mechanical moving parts, making it 80 percent cheaper to maintain than conventional turbines. It’s also about 40 percent cheaper to install, with manufacturing costs at about 53 percent less. The Vortex is silent and, without spinning blades to fly into, safer for birds.
The technology is still in development. The company has started a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of 5,000 backers and $50,000 and has raised a million dollars of government funding and private capital in Spain. They are now looking to the United States for more funding. The Vortex Mini, which stands 41 feet tall and can capture forty percent of the power of the wind when conditions are perfect (blowing at about 26 mph), is scheduled for launch for residential use in developing countries in 2016. The 490 ft commercial Vortex Grand, with a generating capacity of 1 mW (enough to power 400 homes) is scheduled to hit the market in 2018.
At Earth Sharing, we know one thing that would encourage this and similar efforts to generate clean power is greater taxation oil, coal, other natural resources and the pollution produced in consuming them. Simply making harmful activities more costly through taxes while eliminating taxes on what is needed to produce clean energy (labor, research, sales of hardware, etc.) would foster an environment more conducive to innovation and, in so doing, align corporate financial interests with the common good.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematical geniuses in history. He was born in a small village in rural India. But his village was very poor. He was often unable to afford food, and finally died at the age of just 33, from a disease associated with dirty water. His death could have been easily prevented, but Ramanujan could not afford a doctor. (source)
That was a hundred years ago. Today, India still produces great thinkers. Take Amit Garg for example. He recently broke the world record for dividing a ten digit number by a five digit number, all in his head. But to find the best funded universities, Amit had to move to America.
How can India be so rich in people, yet so poor in money? How can it still be poor after a hundred years of investment and progress? Indians work just as hard as people in richer nations; heir nation has democracy, trade, and natural resources. Yet, the average Indian wage is still a tiny fraction of the average American wage. Why?
This problem is repeated in many developing nations. Why?
Whenever rich nations and poor nations both exist, the money is often sucked from the poor into the rich. Differences in income act like a gigantic global vacuum cleaner.
This is true no matter how clever or hard working the poor people are, and no matter how much the rich try to send aid. This essay looks at why.
The border between rich and poor nations acts as a Global Vacuum Cleaner. Rich individuals’ greater buying power means that things of value will tend to be sucked out of poor nations into rich nations, leaving poverty behind.
This is not the only economic force at work of course. There are other major forces, such as where the rent goes on land, establishing overseas factories, charitable giving, etc. Some of these can be used to counteract the vacuum. But this essay is a reminder that the natural effect of inequality is to suck wealth from the poor to the rich. This effect is so fundamental, so constant, that it dwarfs any aid budget.
Ironically the GVC even hurts rich nations. Without the vacuum, poor people could create more wealth, then both nations would benefit far more from trade and faster scientific advances.
Imagine two nations:
Tenland, where people earn ten dollars per hour.
And Oneland, where people earn one dollar per hour.
Both nations make products that take an hour to manufacture. So a product from Oneland costs one dollar. But a product from Tenland costs ten dollars.
Imagine you live in Tenland. Obviously you will buy your products from Oneland, because they only cost one dollar instead of ten.
But if you live in Oneland and need something from Tenland (as you will from time to time), then you have to pay ten dollars. You have to work ten times longer than if you bought something locally.
Thus, work goes from Oneland to Tenland at a rate ten times faster than it goes the other way. The border becomes a Global Vacuum Cleaner (GVC), sucking the work out of Oneland. Eventually, Oneland gets in debt to Tenland, and has to sell its natural resources in a haste just to pay the bills.
Onelanders have to work longer and longer hours. Few can afford to save for retirement, so they have more children instead: your children look after you in old age. But more mouths to feed means more work to be done: so even the children have to work.
Tenland not only sucks out products and natural resources, it sucks out the best brains as well. Tenland welcomes anyone who can create a lot of wealth. But ordinary Onelanders don’t get visas: Tenlanders are afraid of their own wages going down.
It gets worse
One way out is for Oneland to increase the value of what it sells. Oneland could buy Tenland machines and starts manufacturing more advanced goods. The machines would be expensive: Oneland would need to sell everything it had, but these Tenland machines mean it can compete like Tenland, right?
Wrong. Tenland virtually always has better machines. It uses Oneland’s cheap raw materials (e.g. Congolese Coltan for electronics), and can thus make products for a similar price. However, Tenland has more machines and can offer a much better choice, enabling Tenland to sell for more.
The GVC gives so much power to one side that trade rules themselves are written to favor the rich countries. When international rules are decided, Tenland will specify things that only it can produce. All in the name of quality and safety, of course.
The GVC gets a further boost from the “race to the bottom”: some parts of Oneland will be so poor that the people will do absolutely anything to get money. So anyone from Oneland who charges more cannot sell.
What can we do?
What if the people of Oneland close their borders? Then the GVC stalls. But Oneland is hindered from improving its condition without machines from Tenland. Oneland needs to buy from Tenland. So, they need Tenland dollars. To get them, they need to sell things to Tenland. This starts the GVC up again.
What if compassionate Tenland customers just pay extra, so Oneland suppliers can be paid more? This does not change the underlying mathematics of the vacuum. Money will be sucked back into the rich nation.
A better future
Many people think the global vacuum can never change, because Tenland relies on Oneland for cheap resources.
Yet the opposite is true: if we get rid of cheap labor, the rich actually become richer. This is why:
Consider a world like today, where Tenland sucks value out of Oneland.
This means Oneland schools do not have many books and Oneland farmers cannot invest for the future. So despite being smart and hard working, Oneland workers and farmers cannot do what Tenlanders do.
So not only does Tenland produce the best value added goods, it also produces some of the best workers and best crops. Tenland even grows its own wood, because Tenlanders like to walk through beautiful forests.
So if we add up all the sources of Tenland wealth, Oneland is a very small part.
With more recycling, Tenland would rely on Oneland for even less.
But if Tenland can make money on its own, so can Oneland. If Onelanders were paid as much as Tenlanders, and used the same self-sufficient methods, they would create the same wealth as Tenland.
But what of Tenland’s small reliance on cheap Oneland materials? Yes, each would pay more for that small amount. But each would gain a greater profit due to increased trade.
For a real world example, compare how much the USA gained from Japan before and after Japan became wealthy. Cheap rice is nice, but better cars and better software are much more useful.
When two nations are wealthy they both make more money. Because they have more choice, and faster scientific progress.
Imagine a world with no more Onelands. No more desperate people to support terrorism or cut down rain forests just to survive. More inventions and artists. And the side effect of more recycling means the planet is safe for the next ten thousand years.
The Global Vacuum Cleaner (GVC) is a natural result of unequal wages.
So for every dollar we give in aid, tens or hundreds of dollars come in the other direction.
But if the poor are paid more, then the rich would make even more money.
Shutting down the GVC also creates peace and a better environment.
What to do?
How do we create a world where the poor are paid more? We need two changes:
Create more wealth and more jobs, so we no longer fear immigration.
How do we do that? We need to remove artificial shortages, i.e. the hoarding of natural resources domestically. This will enable us to no longer rely on stripping poor nations of their natural resources.
This essay was inspired by an article from Oxfam in the 1980s. It calculated that for every dollar given in aid, ten dollars or more comes back in the form of lower prices for raw materials.
That fact changed my life. It led me on a quest to understand the economics of poverty and wealth. I try to avoid relying on statistics, as these can be endlessly interpreted. Where possible I want to understand the underlying logic, and the logic behind the logic. Hence my own web site, AnswersAnswers.com.
The Internet is, like, the coolest thing ever. My kids, aged 17 and 14, can’t conceive of life without it. Back in the day, it used to be called “The Information Superhighway” — but it’s more than that, now. It’s become almost a sort of worldwide collective mind, connecting us in ways what evolve faster than they can be interpreted. Back in 1990, I organized a free public seminar, an introduction to the Internet. It was held in a room that seated 50 people, and about 150 showed up. People stayed to stand in the hallway, almost entirely out of earshot of the speakers, trying to glean whatever they could. We all want to be connected. Perhaps we all need to be connected. How It All Started The Internet started out as, arguably, the single most important by-product of US military spending: the ARPAnet, whose original mission was to provide an invulnerable command-and-control network. The basic idea was to break messages up into packets, each of which carrying instructions on how to reassemble them at their destination. These packets would be sent out into the network, using whatever pathway was open. Thus began a network that could still function even if big chunks of it (say, the Washington, DC and New York metro areas) were vaporized in a nuclear war. Such a network would carry digital messages — and it began to dawn on us that any old thing — be it music, books, photos, cartoons of the Prophet, video games — can be poured into an electronic tube in the form of ones and zeros, and decoded at the other end. The most neato thing of all, the thing that gave the Internet its nerd-heroic revolutionary ethos, is that it was participatory. Essentially, every user of the Internet would have equal access to every other user — and to a significant extent this remains true, even in these days of massive mass media. If you have a cell phone and a Net connection, you can report the breaking news. And, if you’re creative, savvy and lucky, it’s possible, with a very low initial investment, to get your Web content up in front of millions of viewers. This has been a boon to advocates and activists of all kinds — and a few notably successful entrepreneurs. We’re All Content ProvidersThe Internet companies that have made it biggest have been those who have found the best ways to leverage their users’ input. Google sells advertisements whose effectiveness are maximized automatically by association with the things people choose to search for. Ebay monetizes the crap in everyone’s basement by letting people present it, for free, to those who want to buy it. And Facebook! I often look at Facebook, over morning coffee, and wonder what the heck it’s good for — but it’s amazingly good at what it does. Facebook takes the genius of Google and Ebay a step further: not only does it expertly remind you about the stuff you’ve thought about, looked at or purchased — it does so in the context of the world’s favorite time-wasting hangout. I would not be surprised if a study were to show that Facebook users exist in some sort of hyper-relaxed hypnotic state: Like… yes, and share… All of these incredibly successful Internet firms rely on their users to be content providers. Yet, notwithstanding the amazing variety of cool stuff you can do with the World Wide Web, in physical terms it is just a way of transferring digital files from one computer to another. You can dump coded 1’s and 0’s into many kinds of pipe — and the pipe you want is the one that can reach as many users as possible. Initially, this was the telephone system, with its universal service, as was mandated in the US by the Communications Act of 1934. Among many other provisions, this law designated telephone companies as Common Carriers. This meant that they had no responsibility or liability for the information their lines carried, and that they could neither refuse nor discriminate against any caller because of anything said over the phone. As you would expect, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) initially had every incentive to act as common characters. It was the textbook example of what economists call a “network externality” — the more ideas, innovations, philosophy and porn its users provided, the more people would want use the Internet. This didn’t tend to overload the information-carrying capacity (the bandwidth) of the phone lines, because in the beginning, the Net transmitted information in the form of text. People accessed the Net using dial-up modems (the ones that made the weird skritchy noises when they connected); the fastest ones pulled in 56K bits per second. Right now I am using a DSL Internet connection, whose speed is on the low end of what is currently called “broadband.” My wife is downstairs watching a streaming video, and my laptop just recorded a download speed of 3.9 M bits per second — in other words, 69 times faster than the old dialup days. Back then, we thought the Internet was way cool and full of potential, but it wasn’t a pop-culture thing. It had a learning curve, and a lingo of its own, and this gave rise to a culture of proud geekery. Nerdiness slowly became hip. We also thought that the day of streaming video on demand was about as far in the future as Star Trek’s live-streaming of human beings. Moore’s Law Marches OnInternet Culture, however, was on a collision course with the Net’s emergence as a pop phenomenon. Little by little, it got easier to use. There was no stopping it: text-based interfaces gave way to graphical browsers (which were given away free). Online commerce boomed, following the lead of Jeff Bezos, who shipped Amazon.com’s first book from his garage in 1995. Over the last fifteen years the Net has changed the way just about everyone does business. And, the list of feasible online wonders keeps expanding, to the tune of this crazy little thing called Moore’s Law. Intel pioneer Gordon Moore articulated the principle that sheer data-processing power tends to double every 18-24 months. This has held true for over three decades. While the laws of quantum mechanics prohibit this process from going on forever, predictions of when the Moore’s Law Curve would flatten out have repeatedly been pushed into the future. “In 1976,” writes Jonathan Strickland, “the Cray-1 was state-of-the-art: it could process 160 million floating-point operations per second (flops) and had 8 megabytes (MB) of memory.” The laptop on which I’m typing these words has an Intel i7 processor that can process 113 billion flops, and has exactly 1,000 times the memory capacity of the ’76 Cray. Things have gotten way faster. It may never be possible to store entire human beings in computer memory (Star Trek’s transporter is the ultimate, I guess, in Cloud Computing) — but I can now watch Star Trek on my laptop anytime I want, even at the relatively pokey download speeds available in rural Maine. The Internet has entered the era of streaming video — and that is what has made the issue of “Net Neutrality” so huge. Streaming video uses a tremendous amount of bandwidth. Netflix and YouTube alone account for more than 47% of the overall downstream bandwidth use in the US today. Net Neutrality is the principle that ISPs should be “common carriers.” The so-called “last mile” providers, who own the wires that bring the data to your home, enjoy a monopoly. According to Net Neutrality advocates, they have no business discriminating against any of the data coming through those wires. People get very emotional about this (I think the wonderful Vi Hart offers the most listenable explanation, but John Oliver’s excellent rant is a must-see, too). The Internet’s character as a wide open frontier, with equal access for everybody, is what made it such a fertile ground for innovation and creativity. If we allow ISPs to pick and choose the data they transmit to us, we’re on a slippery slope. Big money will pay for big pipes. The Internet gave normal folks a seat at the Grownup Media Table; now Big Cable wants to take it all away. The case for Net Neutrality seems pefectly obvious — and that is how advocates present it: as a simple standoff between We the People and the forces of Corporate Privilege. Cui Bono? Network Neutrality started becoming widely debated after certain bandwidth-hogging services became popular. (Before that, it wasn’t a front-page issue, because Net Neutrality wasn’t widely perceived as threatened.) First it was peer-to-peer file-sharing by services such as BitTorrent (including lots of illegal copies of copyrighted TV shows and films). A 2007 lawsuit against Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, forced it to stop blocking BitTorrent. Recently, controversy ensued after Comcast slowed down Netflix service to its subscribers. The dispute was settled this past February when Netflix agreed to pay Comcast for faster, more reliable service. This agreement, of course, violated the principle of Net Neutrality. A few technical observations will help us to understand the issues here. Back in the days of dialup modems, many local companies competed to provide Internet access; they all had equal access to the phone lines. As demand for broadband grew, however, Internet service started to depend on privately-owned wires, of either the phone company of the cable-TV company. Because most customers have only one set of these wires available, ISPs effectively have a monopoly. The Net Neutrality debate centers around the behavior of these ISPs, which provide the vital “last mile” service to individual homes. The ISPs deliver content; they don’t provide it. Content comes to individual users from the worldwide Internet, via the ISPs. The abandonment of Net Neutrality, we are told, will allow the establishment of a “fast lane” for providers with deep pockets. However, ISPs aren’t able to deliver content any faster than it comes to them through the worldwide Internet. ISPs cannot actually speed up data; they can only slow it down — and they contend that bandwidth-heavy services clog up their currently available capacity, slowing down service for everyone. In the early days, all users of the Internet shared the infrastructure through which Net data coursed: the Internet backbone. Today, however, there exists a “fast lane” through the Internet that has nothing to do with the last-mile providers. Large content providers such as Netflix or YouTube use content delivery network (CDN) technology, which sets up cached versions of their content on servers close to high-demand areas. This greatly speeds up the delivery of the video content to the ISP — and, it greatly increases the volume of data the ISP must handle. Some ISPs have blocked content from some CDNs; others have negotiated payment agreements. Now, if one company, by utilizing a paid CDN service, is able to get faster speeds, is that not establishing a “fast lane” and violating neutrality? Well… it’s certainly establishing a fast lane, anyway — and that is how today’s Internet works. If every packet of data were required to be treated just the same — in other words, if no proprietary way-clearing equipment were allowed — most users would get poorer service than they do now. How Will We Get Our TV? The key factor in all this is that only recently have on-demand movies and TV series on the Internet become commercially viable. Before that, we consumed TV shows in broadcast form — all at the same time — either via a broadcast antenna or a cable subscription, and we consumed feature films either in movie theatres or by renting the physical media. One might ask why it’s so hard to get videos on the Internet, when we’ve been getting hundreds of TV channels through coaxial cable for decades. The difference is in the way the signal is provided. A broadcast TV show is provided via a certain frequency through a cable. It is only available at the time of broadcast. One signal can be sent to the node in, say, each apartment building, where it can be split among 1-200 subscribers. However, the consumer of a streaming video on the Internet can start the show anytime, pause it and resume it later, and simultaneously have access to the full range of sites on the Web. An Internet TV show takes up a bunch of bandwidth, which must be dedicated at that specific time to each individual user who clicks on it. That is the case for all Internet content, of course — but websites and still images take up so much less bandwidth that millions of them can bounce back and forth without degrading anyone’s service. The key to ensuring fair and innovative Internet service is competition. Under current conditions, cable or telecom companies have a monopoly on last-mile Internet service. However, there are a number of interesting developments that can, potentially, invigorate competition among Internet providers. Indeed, many commentators argue that mandating Net Neutrality rules now would stifle various forms of technological innovation, and weaken Internet service across the board. Until very recently, cable companies have been mainly in business to deliver broadcast-model cable TV via established cable networks. As demand for that service falls, they will have more incentive to devote bandwidth to Internet services. In a way, the Net Neutrality debate comes down to a conflict between two types of Big Player — the ISP, such as Comcast, and the large-scale content provider, such as Netflix — over who is going to pay for increased capacity. Each wants to preserve the viability of its own business model — but in the end, the market is going to decide who wins. Possible Sources of Competition Folks in big cities have their zippy cable modems — but, DSL service through regular old twisted-copper telephone wires is still the most prevalent form of broadband service. New technology is under development that promised to achieve Gigabit speeds over regular phone lines (i.e., some 20x faster than my Star Trek stream). It would require step-up boxes within a quarter mile or less of the home, but current DSL systems also require local boxes, only a bit less frequent — and if the market is there, there’s a good chance the hardware will be provided. The next generation of cable technology also promises considerable improvement in download speeds: the race is on. It’s worth noting that any system that reliably steams high-quality video will have no trouble handling the less bandwidth-intensive needs of all of us lowly content providers who offer mere journalism, art, poetry, advocacy, education — content, that is, in the form of text and images. In today’s market, the cost of storing and transmitting such things has been cut, effectively, to zero. This is not to say that fabulous, as-yet-unheard-of new applications might not require considerable bandwidth. Who knows when the next Google or Facebook will show up? But when it does, it will emerge on the open Internet, just as all those other sites did — and, in today’s market, when content becomes popular enough to need extra delivery capacity, content providers can afford to buy it. Many people, of course, have ideas to share or programs to promulgate, things that are very important to them, yet have failed, thus far, to “go viral.” Is the next phase of the Internet going to pass these good people by? It’s conceivable — but it seems to me that this ship has already sailed. The Internet has been a very, very big place, for some years now. Yet, it’s worth noting that neither ISP monopolies not bandwidth limitations have kept anyone from viewing the video of NYC police officers choking Eric Garner. The Internet’s democratizing potential is still strong. How About Municipal Broadband? Finally, there might be one more way to ensure that there is healthy competition in the ISP market. Some — including, lately, President Obama — have advocated municipal investment in broadband service. This would be one way to keep the big-cable ISPs on their toes. Big Cable recognizes this, because its lobbyists have been working overtime to get states to pass laws to restrict or prohibit the practice; such laws are on the books in twenty states. Tennessee, for instance, prohibits cities from establishing municipal broadband in an “area where a privately-held cable television operator is providing cable service.” Apparently Chattanooga got in under the wire, though, because the city (pop. 171,000) has provided fiber-optic cable directly to every home in it. It accomplished this feat along with an upgrade to its municipally-owned power grid, and it was funded by a combination of Federal stimulus funds and municipal bonds. Chattanoogans can get full Gigabit service for $350 per month, but most opt for the affordable 30 MB service — six times faster than the national average. Chattanooga’s fiber system carries TV and telephone signals as well. Not only is it expected to start showing a profit this year, it also makes possible a slew of other money-saving innovations, such as a smart electrical grid, traffic lights that respond in real time to changes in traffic patterns, and vastly improved responses to outages. It’s the wave of the future, and Chattanoogans are quite happy to be surfing it. Skeptics of the “Net Neutrality” position argue that Internet service is qualitatively different from public utilities such as highways, or electrical service (and the deregulation of wholesale electric power over the past few decades has yielded strong efficiencies). The key difference, they argue, is that Moore’s Law continues to be in effect; unfettered technological innovation will continue to yield unpredictable benefits, and should not be hindered by regulation. Everyone, however (everyone, anyway, who isn’t paid by Time Warner/Comcast) agrees that lack of competition in “last mile” Internet service hinders progress. Where will this competition come from? Well, it could come from a number of sources. Successful implementation of Gigabit DSL service, for example, would provide a strong competitor to the cable companies. Or, fiber-to-the-home could blow cable out of the water. This could be done by local governments, as in Chattanooga (and in Wilson, a town of 50,000 in Eastern North Carolina), or by private companies, as Google has been doing in Kansas City, Missouri. But, if such an infrastructure improvement would be cost-effective or even outright profitable for a city that undertakes it, it’s hard to see why a city would have to wait for the largesse of a Google. Public investment in local broadband is simply good municipal policy. If it is, and to the extent that it is, the Henry George Theorem tells us that it will fully pay for itself in higher land values. Don’t you think that cheap, reliable high-speed Internet service will move Chattanooga, Tennessee up on the list of desirable places to start a business? There’s no doubt that people prefer places with high-quality, reliable infrastructure. There’s also no doubt (though this is a fact that is less widely understood) that the very best way to pay for local infrastructure is by taxes on land value — after all, it is precisely those public investments that have created that land value in the first place. Undoubtedly, Internet service is a “public utility” issue — which is why the Net Neutrality debate has been so fraught and passionate. But the answer isn’t to try to restore the Internet to a bygone era of “neutrality” that merely rations existing capacity. The answer is to let a million technological flowers bloom — and when they do, remember who rightfully owns the ground they’re growing in. So, join hands, everyone — all together now: What do we want? Municipal broadband! How do we pay for it? The land value tax! I can’t hear you! Come on — say it again now, much louder:
“We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people.” — Cyril Scott, President, Rosebud Sioux Tribe
“Get off my land!” That injunction, which calls to mind a rifle-wielding homesteader, protecting hearth and home against intruders — is about as American an image as you can think of.
The civil infrastructure behind that image is less storied, but equally consequential. There is scarcely a square inch of North American land whose tenure is not duly recorded and righteously enforced, down to the pickiest easement or lien. Americans believe in land ownership.
A big infrastructure project, such as an oil pipeline — or a highway, or a railroad — must pass through many boundaries, and its legal right to do so must, in every case, be secured, purchased, negotiated — or conquered. There are many layers of irony in the fact that the biggest, most fraught and controversial pipeline project of the new century could be stopped by a band of people in tipis, saying “No further.” Many people have heard of the Keystone XL pipeline. A fair number have even marched against it. However, readers may not have a clear idea of the overall industrial context; in other words, they might not know how many oil pipelines there are: some 185,000 miles of them, crisscrossing the United States, carrying every kind of crude oil and refined petroleum product. About 55,000 miles of these are “crude oil trunk lines,” of which the Keystone XL represents the large variety. It is planned to be three feet in diameter (the trans-Alaska pipeline is the biggest, with a diameter of four feet). Its daily capacity is projected to be around 830,000 barrels of crude per day.
It’s hard to get your mind around something as huge as oil consumption in the United States. The US currently uses 18.89 million barrels of oil per day; this figure is down from a high of 20.9 million in 2006. That seems like a lot. How can we visualize it? Let’s think of it in terms of tanker trucks: the big semis that pull up to fill tanks at your local gas station. Such a tanker carries about 5,000 gallons, or 895 barrels of gasoline. That means that today’s United States uses 21,106 tankerfuls of oil every day. Each of those trucks is about 60 feet long; if we put them all on a road with an average of three feet of space between them, we’d be looking at 252 miles of semi trucks. And, of course, we don’t consume crude oil, we consume refined petroleum products, which means that the oil has to be transported at least twice. That means that, at a minimum, the US’s daily oil-transportation needs would fill four lanes of the entire length of the New Jersey Turnpike bumper-to-bumper with tank trucks, with a few thousand more waiting on the on-ramps. Tanker trucks, of course, really only make sense for dispensing finished products; most crude oil is moved through pipelines.
If that’s the case, then why is the Keystone project so controversial? Well, to hear its supporters talk, it shouldn’t be. Arguments against it are characterized as no more than treehugging, Obamafied puffery. Oil is oil; it’s the stuff that modern economies run on; demand for oil may fluctuate a little, but over the long term it’s a given. Getting more crude to US refineries, especially from a friendly neighbor country, can only be a good thing. “Global warming” probably isn’t even real. These assumptions describe the political climate that TransCanada faced in building its Keystone pipeline project, most of which, indeed, is already in place, transporting gobs and gobs of oil as we speak. They didn’t expect this final section, connecting Hardisty, Alberta with Steele City, Nebraska via Montana and the Dakotas, to pose a problem.
Oil Sands: the Crudest Crude
When we hear the price of oil reported on the financial news, we often hear it in terms of the a benchmark called “light, sweet crude,” which sounds very nice, sort of like maple syrup. Lightness and sweetness are references to crude oil’s density, and its sulfur content. Light, sweet oil, such as Brent crude from the North Sea, are priced higher, because they demand less refining to yield retail products such as gasoline. The kind of crude oil the Keystone XL pipeline would carry is less like light, sweet maple syrup, more like the kind of gunk you’d scrape off the bottom of a truck. It’s called “oil sands.” (Many call it “tar sands,” which is more descriptive, but Canadian oil people insist that because tar is a human product, “oil sands” is more correct.)
The resource is bitumen, a tar-like substance mixed with sand. Extremely large deposits of the stuff exist in Alberta (there are other large deposits in Venezuela). It is mined in two ways, either by strip mining, for shallow deposits — or, for deeper deposits, by a process similar to fracking, in which steam is forced underground, liquefying the bitumen and pushing it to the surface. In either case, however, mere mining doesn’t elevate the gunk to the status of “crude oil.” It must undergo an energy- and water-intensive pre-refining process to make it valuable enough to bother with refining, and fluid enough to move through a pipeline.
Indeed, in the oil-embargo years of the 1970s, there were proposals to exploit Canada’s oil sand fields, which have long been known to be vast: Canada’s proven oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia’s. But because of its many disadvantages, oil sands was not deemed commercially viable at the time. Since then, a few factors have changed: easily-recoverable sources of liquid crude oil have become depleted, raising the average cost of a barrel of crude. Lots of oil is still being brought to market, but more of it is getting there through new technologies such as deep-ocean drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The newfound viability of Canadian tar sands (if it indeed exists) is part of this trend. Additionally, instability in the Middle East, the area that surrounds the world’s largest petroleum reserves, makes North American sources that much more attractive.
Nevertheless, the delivery of tar sands oil is anything but a light, sweet process. Surface mining operations thus far have dug up huge areas of hitherto pristine boreal forest and marshland; some four tons of earth must be moved to create a single barrel of oil. Furthermore, separating bitumen from its sand matrix consumes between two and four barrels of water per barrel of oil. It actually uses more water than that, but some is recycled. The used water, however, is laced with toxic chemicals and cannot be placed back into the environment, but is held indefinitely in huge “tailings ponds,” two of which are visible from space to the naked eye. The process also uses lots of energy. The strip-mining operations use the world’s largest electric shovels, loading 100 tons per scoop into dump trucks that carry 400 tons per load. The water used to separate bitumen from sand must be heated. It has been estimated that current tar sands operations contribute four per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions, and that figure is projected to triple over the next six years. Some engineers are proposing to lower this figure, however, by using portable nuclear reactors to heat the water.
The more one looks into the realities of the tar-sands industry, the more absurd it seems. In order to separate the bitumen (which is only twelve per cent of the oil sands “ore” by volume; four tons of it must be mined to yield a barrel of oil) they need to heat so much water that nuclear reactors are a viable way to do it? And even once the bitumen is separated, it is still too viscous to ship; it has to be “upgraded,” using more heat and pressure, to get it to flow.
But, (advocates insist) we need the oil. And if these ecological travesties are going on way up in Northern Alberta (where, by the way, it is creating lots of jobs; the remote village of Fort McMurray is a boom town), what do we care? They’ve got plenty of land up there. But: the remoteness of the Albertan oil sands deposits brings us to the next chapter of our story. No oil-refining capacity exists anywhere near them. For this oil to be viable, there has to be a cost-effective way to get it to refineries.
Advocates of the Keystone XL assert that it should be built because those Canadians are going to sell their oil anyway; if they can’t use this route, they’ll send it West to the Chinese, or East to Atlantic ports. It isn’t that easy, though. To get to the Pacific, a pipeline would have to cross the Rocky Mountains. The route East is much longer, would have to pass through many complex, populated rights-of-way, and has already faced vociferous opposition in Portland, Maine, where voters this year prohibited the reversal of flow through an existing pipeline to accommodate oil-sands crude. Shipping of crude oil by railroad is at just about the peak of existing capacity, and has led to some devastating spills. No, there is a very big, very clear reason why the Keystone XL pipeline is such a big deal:
Without it, the Canadian oil sands industry will be a losing proposition.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m saying that without Keystone XL, the Canadian oil sands industry will be a losing business proposition for its investors. It’s already a losing proposition for the planet; its external costs are, as we’ve seen, absurdly high. But, in spite of everything, if it is able to deliver 830,000 barrels per day to US refineries, it will be profitable — and this pipeline is the only way it can possibly do that. If the pipeline goes through, mining operations will ramp up, economies of scale will kick in, and money will be made. If it doesn’t, well… then the big scar on Alberta’s land won’t get bigger, and a very large amount of carbon won’t get dumped into the world’s air.
James Hansen and Bill McKibben saw the writing on the wall, and organized a very efficient public campaign to raise awareness about the pipeline and its dangers, and their efforts seem to have been effective in strengthening President Obama’s resolve against the project (because it crosses an international border, its final approval is the responsibility of the State Department). This could be overridden by new legislation. A bill to force approval of the pipeline recently lost narrowly in the lame-duck senate; once the new Republican senate is in place, it will almost surely pass. Obama has been sending signals that he would likely veto the bill — but, that may not be the end of the Keystone XL. There could conceivably be enough votes to override his veto, or the pipeline could be traded for a policy the president wants more, such as a minimum wage increase.
The Last Stand
So, bad as it is, the Keystone XL might get the go-ahead anyway, and there’ll be no stopping it, right?
Perhaps there will. There is another sovereignty that must be consulted here — one that deeply disapproves of the Keystone XL pipeline. President Cyril Scott of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said this in a November 14th statement in response to the bill to force approval of the pipeline that was passed by the House of Representatives:
[T]he Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota Oyate) recognizes the authorization of the this pipeline as an act of war. The tribe has done its part to remain peaceful in its dealing with the United States in this matter, in spite of the fact that the Rosebud Sioux Tribe has yet to be properly consulted on the project, which would cross through tribal land, and the concerns brought to the Department of Interior and to the Department of State have yet to be addressed.
The House has now signed our death warrants and the death warrants of our children and grandchildren. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe will not allow this pipeline through our lands.
In earnest of this, the Rosebud Sioux, with the full cooperation of the other Sioux Tribes in South Dakota, have set up a “Spirit Camp” near the tiny community of Ideal, South Dakota, on a small patch of Rosebud tribal land that appears to lie in the proposed path of the pipeline. There, tribal members and supporters have vowed to stay, to guard the land and stop the pipeline.
Does the pipeline route actually cross reservation land? That is an important question, and it appears that TransCanada has chosen the route carefully to avoid doing so. First Nations in Canada have, for the most part, strongly opposed oil sands development, and the company clearly wanted to avoid crossing reservations land in the US, recognizing that doing so could expose them to another level of legal complications. However, it is very difficult to cross the country to the North and East of the Rosebud Sioux reservation without crossing land that does, indeed, belong to the Rosebud Sioux. And, furthermore, even were the pipeline not to actually cross Rosebud trust land, consultation with the tribe is still legally required if such a project were to cross adjacent lands in which the tribe has recognized riparian, burial or sacred considerations.
This Far. No Further.
The question of whether a crude oil pipeline in South Dakota crosses sovereign Indian land is by no means settled, legally or morally. The history of the “Great Sioux Reservation” which was created by the 1868 treaty of Fort Laramie is, in many ways, an apt microcosm of the entire history of dealings between the United States and the indigenous people of North America.
The vast majority of surviving Native Americans never surrendered to the United States, and never sought to become US citizens. As settlement pressure increased, tribes were moved, often forcibly, to designated areas. On these reservations, Indians would maintain self-government. They were not subject to the laws of the state(s) that surrounded the reservations; they would maintain a “nation-to-nation” relationship with the federal government, based on treaties (treaties duly negotiated between sovereign states had long been considered, under common law, as the law of the land).
However, by 1887, even that arrangement, disadvantageous as it was to the Indians, came into conflict with the Manifest Destiny of the United States. That year, under the Dawes, or “General Allotment” Act, Native Americans were offered US citizenship under the worst possible terms. Under this law, the reservations would be dissolved and individual families would be allotted 160 acres of land. If individuals accepted these allotments and farmed their lands in a suitable manner, they would be granted citizenship. To be sure, there were many more 160-acre parcels of land in the Great Sioux Reservation than there were individual families to allot them to. That was part of the plan: the “surplus” land would be made available to white settlers.
This was, of course, just the latest in a long series of treaty abrogations by the US government. Nevertheless, as in the case of slavery (or fee-simple land ownership, for that matter), a need was felt for some form of legal justification. This came in the 1903 Supreme Court decision of Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, which has been called the “Indian Dred Scott decision.” The court held that the US Congress has the power to unilaterally abrogate treaty obligations with native tribes. A series of laws, pursuant to this decision, offered to buy Rosebud Sioux lands for $2.50 (later $2.75) per acre. As the poster shows, these were bargain prices.
This history is the source of the “checkerboard” pattern of trust lands held by the Rosebud Sioux, which are now considered non-contiguous parts of their Reservation. The sovereign status of Indian nations was reinstated in US law by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, pushed by the Franklin Roosevelt administration and termed the “Indian New Deal.” By this time, however, more that 90 million acres, some two-thirds of Indian lands, had been transferred to white settlers.
The Profaning of the Black Hills
Gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota (and Wyoming) in 1874. Before that, this area, which had been held as sacred for hundreds of years, had not been much use to the United States. But, after the Lakota were defeated in the battle of Little Big Horn (1876), Congress seized the Black Hills, in a rider to an 1877 law that ceased all government aid, including food, unless the Black Hills were immediately ceded to the US. There was no mention of compensation.
In 1942, the national monument opened at Mount Rushmore (named for Charles Rushmore, a prospector). The mountain had previously been known by the Lakota as Six Grandfathers, and it featured prominently in the celebrated spiritual journey of Black Elk.
In 1980, the US Supreme Court, upholding a 1977 decision by the US Court of Claims, affirmed that the seizure of the Black Hills was illegal under the Fifth amendment, and awarded the Lakota $106 million in compensation. The various Lakota tribes making up the Sioux nation (Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Crow Creek, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock) agreed not to accept the cash compensation and demanded that the land be returned to them, as stipulated in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The money was held in escrow, and now totals over a billion dollars. Some are tempted to take the money; the various Sioux reservations are among the poorest areas in the United States. However, the current value of the settlement would only amount to a bit over $10,000 per person.
The Spirit Camp
It is widely understood that all aspects of legal precedent regarding the “government-to-government” relationship between the United States and Indian nations are uncertain. Indeed, the 1903 Lone Wolf decision (affirming Congress’s right to abrogate treaties with Indian nations at will) has not been overturned. And, laws passed that enforced the allotment policies of the Dawes act are still accepted as legal precedent. Nevertheless, there is a body of law that establishes some form of sovereignty for federally recognized Indian nations. Under that body of law, you can’t slap a pipeline down on reservation land — or atop sacred or burial sites on nearby stolen land — without permission.
The Rosebud Sioux members who are living in tipis along the pipeline route, outside of Ideal, South Daktoa, are making sure these facts are not ignored:
Resistance to this threat is underway. The Lakota and their allies are rising to the challenge with several carefully calculated actions, one of which is to organize and erect spiritual tipi camps to stop progress along the pipeline right-of-way…. We will use the legal and moral authority of the First Nations peoples to protect significant spiritual and burial sites which are at immediate risk…. Our government spends millions of dollars to protect cultural sites in other countries we occupy while it issues permits for the destruction of similar sites in the heartland of America for corporate profit.
The XL pipeline is the current leading threat to the survival of the planet and these spiritual tipi camps are our best opportunity to stop it. Lakota men and women are putting their lives on the line for all of us, and they need your help.
Should the Keystone XL pipeline survive a presidential veto, or otherwise gain government approval, the Spirit Camp could be the last thing that stands in its way. To be sure, the US government has the ability to sweep aside this resistance which, however heroic, is quite small. But, it won’t be able to do so without perpetrating yet another unforgivable atrocity against the Lakota people.
Fifty years ago Mario Savio delivered an amazing speech:
“put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus…you’ve got to make it stop!” Savio’s words are believed by many to have sparked everything from the Free Speech Movement to the enormous opposition to the vietnam war.
People are protesting across the country today after juries decided not to indict the police officers who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Activists are literally throwing their bodies upon the gears, blocking the highway in DC (see video below). Do you think recent events are the catalyst for a new era in the Civil Rights Movement? Perhaps the suppression of protesters marks a new era in the Free Speech Movement as well? Tell us what you think.
As world leaders assembled for an awkward “family photo” at this year’s G20 summit, Vladimir Putin was placed on the far right. This was done, perhaps in part, to keep distance between him and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who threatened to “shirtfront” rugby tackle the Russian president.
Local newspapers put it comically; Putin has been “exiled to social Siberia.” But behind the photos of shirtless Putin on horseback, and all of the flamboyant posturing surrounding the G20 summit are serious geopolitical and economic issues that affect us all.
Interest-group politics veiled as pro-market reforms
Participating countries in the G20 summit produced a report including a “growth package”, a set of reforms which the OECD and IMF promise will yield, an oddly specific, 2.1% increase in economic growth by 2018.
Many of these reforms are not really about facilitating fair competition. Instead, they create and sustain private monopolies and tax loopholes. Don’t take our word for it, see the report for yourself. Below are the reforms.
“Reducing regulation and the costs of doing business”
In general, it is a good idea to minimize bureaucracy, and remove particular regulations that maintain artificial privileges (e.g. restrictive taxi licenses). The report does a good job of addressing that issue. In many cases, regulation does fall most heavily on small businesses and new entrants, giving an unfair advantage to large existing corporations.
But in the G20 growth package, this “reduction of regulation” includes the following kinds of policies which are not as competitive, fair, or beneficial as they may seem.
a. Privatizing Basic infrastructure
Utilities and basic infrastructure are often natural monopolies, meaning it is not practical to have a competitive market for them. Take water and sanitation for instance. There is only so much space in a city available for pipes, sewers, etc. It’s not feasible to have many competitors all using different pipes and subterranean tunnels. Giving the privilege of providing vital services to private companies cannot be expected to “boost the competitiveness of the economy and the efficient allocation of resources.” (G20, p. 9)
However, it is sure to create very profitable business opportunities at the expense of the public. To continue using the previous example, if a private company is given the monopoly to provide all of the water for a city, they will charge very high prices. If there is no other way to get water, than to pay the water company, people will pay whatever it costs; nobody can survive without water.
Sure, people would spend more money (increasing GDP) if they were forced to pay ever more in water costs. However, it wouldn’t necessarily mean any more real wealth had been created, or that people’s lives had been improved; it’s quite the opposite actually. Yet, the report implies that everything will be peaches and cream if we focus on maximizing this narrow metric of economic success.
“Observed productivity and price changes in key infrastructure sectors in the 1990s … are estimated to have permanently increased Australia’s GDP by 2.5 per cent.” (G20 p. 5)
b. Reducing Pollution Fines
“The Government has also removed impediments to investment by repealing the mining and carbon taxes. The repeal of the carbon tax alone is expected to reduce annual compliance costs by $85.3 million. Both these reforms will directly reduce compliance costs and will contribute to a more dynamic economy.” (G20, p. 9)
The claim that such taxes would “contribute to a more dynamic economy” is dubious. Instead, it would likely just increase windfall gains for big polluters. Reducing the cost of polluting reduces a company’s incentive to not harm the environment. In other words, it will likely greatly increase pollution. If you want a more dynamic economy and less pollution, simply stop taxing regular people for working and make up for the difference by taxing pollution more.
c. Deregulation of university fees
In our current education systems, the value of a university degree is more in the privileges it grants than the actual quality of the tuition. The biggest personal capital one gains from university are the personal relations and the pre-selection premium to one’s professional status – both of which involve strong network effects. Having gone to Harvard does give one access to certain labour markets regardless of what they happened to learn while studying.
Allowing education fees to soar in high-status universities is likely to cause further polarization of privilege, which reduces social mobility and structural adaptability. The one part of the growth package that actually seems to increase “equality of opportunity” (G20, p. 1) is that the government will be “supporting over 80,000 additional students in 2018 at an estimated cost of $820 million over 2014-15 to 2017-18.” (G20, p. 8) But these suggested public education subsidies and the resulting “price signals” (G20, p. 8) are likely to result in further windfall gains to elite-status universities – instead of encouraging improvements in education quality, as the growth plan insists it would. In other words, universities would simply increase tuition without improving education.
In a market where educational services were separated from assessing professional competence, such competition between the education service providers would be more likely to “improv[e] the quality of tuition”. (G20, p. 8) In the current academic degree paradigm, where status matters and is dependent strongly on the body of students applying to each university, competition is unlikely to work efficiently for the benefit of all students.
d. Tax exemptions and deferment for options used in employee compensation (G20, p. 10)
This looks like nothing but yet another tax avoidance loophole for a few highly paid classes of employees (such as top management). Most employees are not compensated with options in any case, and there is no sensible reason to subsidize compensation in this form over regular wages.
“New investment and infrastructure”
Under current low interest rates, governments are likely to borrow in order to build expensive infrastructure projects. This results in large increases in surrounding land values. If a train station is built for instance, those that own land nearby will see their land’s value increase dramatically, allowing them to charge buyers and renters more. This is an unearned or windfall gain as economists call it.
If however, the value of land is taxed, and owners pay more for owning the best land near the new infrastructure, everyone will benefit equally. Infrastructure can even be constructed using borrowed money that is then paid back with the increased revenue coming from rises in land value. In many cases, it would actually be profitable for the public sector, creating extra revenue for other purposes: increasing access to education and medical care, lowering harmful taxes, and even providing a citizen’s salary (a.k.a. basic income). New infrastructure is great, but not if it is used as a means of raiding the public coffer.
This is part 1 of our coverage of the G20 growth package. Stay tuned for more.
In Ursula K. LeGuin’s fascinating series of “Hainish” novels, the earth’s future is described with the most chillingly brief offhandedness. Hundreds of years before the events these books relate, the home of the “Terrans” was irreversibly poisoned by war and greed. A remnant of the people survived, and went on, over the centuries, to become part of an interplanetary federation — but the Earth’s sad history remained as an object lesson in what can happen to a world whose inhabitants realize, too late, how much damage they’re capable of.
Current events might seem to justify that sort of fatalism. Last week, the IPCC issued its latest report, stating that global climate change is ongoing, irreversible and worse than we thought. As Arctic ice melts, the Russians are building up their Northern military presence, looking toward exploiting newly-accessible fossil fuels (Canada and the USA are also interested). Many of the lawmakers making up the new Republican majority in the US Congress are eager to drill, burn and deregulate. The new Chair of the Senate Environment Committee is Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, one of Washington’s most outspoken climate change “skeptics.” Gas prices are down; sales of SUVs and trucks are up. The sky may, actually, be falling.
Meanwhile, though, urban populations are rising, all over the world — and that could possibly be good news. Studies confirm the intuition that city dwellers, who live in smaller spaces, and use more public transportation, have smaller carbon footprints than rural folk (and way smaller than suburbanites). If cities could invest in technology that would make urban life much more ecologically efficient, they could lead the way to a sustainability revolution that could, perhaps, stave off Ursula LeGuin’s dire prediction.
New York, New York, the town so nice they named it twice, is the grandest, richest, most arrogantly potent city in the world. What if New York City were to show the world the way forward — by devoting itself to becoming, as soon as may be, a Green city, creating absolutely the smallest possible environmental damage — even becoming a carbon-neutral city?
Here are ten feasible steps that New York City could take toward becoming a truly green city — while not just maintaining its economic vitality, but actually enhancing it:
1. Use tax policy to incentivize efficient land use.
2. Use the same tax policy to increase funding for public transportation, and make it free.
These first two are by far the most important; they would create the fertile ground in which all the other reforms could grow. But, tax policy is a wonky issue, and I don’t want to lose you — so we’ll come back to it after we’ve considered a few of the snazzier proposals.
3. Drastically reduce private automobile use.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of wandering around in New York after a heavy snowfall has rendered the streets impassable to cars, you’ve fantasized about how nice it would be if the city could always be that open and free. But… we could never actually do that… could we?
NYC’s public transportation system is really quite good, despite the many strikes against it (overcrowding, funding cuts, deteriorating infrastructure). Millions of New Yorkers (over 55% of households) live without private cars. Imagine the tons of fossil fuel New York City could avoid burning, if no private automobiles clogged its streets!
A congestion-pricing system, such as is used in London, was proposed by Mayor Bloomberg in 2007, and had a lot of support, though the state legislature failed to adopt it. It should. It would be a fine first step. Public transportation options could be beefed up, as the cost of driving in the city increased. The policy could begin in Manhattan, and gradually radiate into the Boroughs.
One of the many ways in which private autos are unwisely encouraged is the low price of parking. Motorists should have to pay the true market value of parking spaces. A demand-based, “smart parking” policy would dovetail with congestion pricing for bridge/tunnel entry points to efficiently begin lowering traffic volume. Prices could be gradually increased, until automobile traffic was drastically decreased. Walkable neighborhoods and all manner of “new urbanist” amenities could be created. Sidewalk green spaces could be expanded. Cross streets could be reduced to one vehicle lane, for emergency or delivery traffic; two lanes of every avenue could be reserved for bicycles.
4. Introduce a tradable credit system to incentivize innovation in green building design.
Last year, the Urban Green Council issued a detailed report on how to reduce New York City’s carbon footprint. Titled “90 by 50,” the report describes steps the city could take to reduce its carbon emissions by 90% by 2050. According to the UGC, 75% of New York City’s carbon emissions come from the building, maintaining, heating, cooling and powering of the city’s buildings. Therefore, creating green buildings, and retrofitting existing buildings to save as much energy as possible, has to play a giant role in any campaign toward a sustainable NYC.
The cost of the “90 by 50” effort was roughly estimated at $167 billion for the whole city, over a period of 35 years. That would seem to be rather a lot; NYC’s entire annual budget is in the neighborhood of $70 billion. Nevertheless: it must be done. Indeed, what is the alternative?
So, how about if we make it interesting? Set a per-square-foot carbon emissions target, well below the city’s current median level. Buildings whose emissions are below that level are issued credits they can sell. Until they retrofit to lower their carbon footprints, buildings with emissions above the target level must buy credits. When more buildings bring their emissions down below the target level, the value of credits will fall — and then the level should be lowered.
Designing a metric for this program would be challenging. It would have to equitably account for myriad ways of reducing carbon footprints: producing renewable energy; increasing green spaces; cutting carbon emissions during every stage of a building’s construction. However, all of those factors can be accurately stated in terms of carbon emissions — our climate-change bottom line. The larger challenge would be to ensure that the metrics would be designed in good faith, and not give easier times to various special interests.
Creating the building stock of a green New York City is a project for the entire city. Feasibly doing it should be a potent source of New York pride. Because the stakes are so high, and NYC is such a vast, visible test case, this should be a municipal policy, effective within the Five Boroughs — and New York City’s tradable carbon credits should not recognize offsets from other places.
What’s wrong with offsets? If it’s the whole world’s atmosphere, isn’t a ton of carbon a ton of carbon? Not necessarily — if our goal is to green our own huge, huffing-puffing city. Tradable carbon credits would be measured in terms of tons of carbon. The per-ton cost of reducing NYC emissions would be considerably higher than, say the cost of saving a ton of carbon by African charcoal producers, or Brazilian rainforest loggers. New Yorkers’ smart play would be to just buy the foreign offsets and continue business as usual at home. But, business as usual is exactly what New York City can’t afford. We should pay the costs, and enjoy the benefits, of our own tradable credit policy.
5. Use Our Kids’ Creative Energy to Market the Program
Kids are always the most fervent and instinctive environmentalists. They don’t need to be told that the natural world is beautiful and worth saving; they need no training to recoil from pollution and waste. Let’s explain the stakes and the strategies of the project to our third, fourth and fifth graders, and get them to create posters and videos on its behalf. Let’s utilize our children’s creativity to make the Green NYC Initiative at least as unavoidable as the latest blockbuster movie.
6. Involve public schools in “neighborhood adoption” programs.
It may have struck the reader by now that, given the reality on the ground, the project being considered is fantastically — maybe even ludicrously — optimistic. Involve our public schools? The deep dysfunction of New York City’s public education system is well-known. The City requires eighth graders to apply to high schools. Families compete intensely for admission to the successful upper echelon of public schools. The system leads inexorably to deep stratification — of school quality, and student success. The City University of New York (CUNY), which accepts all NYC high school graduates, reported in 2013 that 80% of its incoming class needed remedial instruction in reading, writing and math. At the bottom of the heap, forty schools in NYC have been designated as “Persistently Dangerous Schools.” Students have a legal right to transfer out of such a school if they wish, but not all do. The forty schools haven’t all closed; kids still attend them.
Many education reformers and activists, seeking ways to serve the needs of actual students (rather than the demands of standardized tests), focus on the alternative of project-based learning. They argue that many — indeed, most — students don’t retain the contextless facts that traditional education tries to pour into their empty heads. Meaningful learning has a better chance of happening, they suggest, if students can undertake projects that make sense to them. Meaningful learning projects happen in real places, not in school cubicles.
What has this to do with the greening of New York City? Possibly, quite a lot. It’s worth remembering that schools, even failing ones, exist in neighborhoods — and that in the final analysis, the environment isn’t so much where spotted owls live as where we live. The retrofitting of all those NYC buildings (to earn their carbon credits) will take not just a lot of work, but also a good deal of economic and logistical planning. Is that not work that bored, difficult, ill-served public school students could do, and benefit from doing? The average age of a New York City building, citywide, is 76 years! And there’s a strong correlation between advanced building age (and the corresponding energy wastage) and local levels of poverty: the colloquial term for this is “slums.”
The process of retrofitting buildings, insulating, installing windows, etc. is labor- and time-intensive. Often it will be happening in people’s homes; those who are doing the work could scarcely help but get to know the residents. It’s hard to imagine that such a people-intensive project, done for such good reasons (bolstered by a colorful, uplifting ad campaign created by children) could fail to yield very positive results. (Some of the value of carbon credits created by the students’ work could even be donated to school programs.) In a real sense, the greening of NYC would amount to a long-overdue setting-in-order of the City’s house.
It’s well-known that various environmentally-influenced health problems are highly correlated with poverty. The list is long, including obesity, smoking, drug abuse, asthma and STDs. Another phenomenon that correlates with poor areas is “food deserts” — areas in which it’s quite easy to buy cigarettes, lottery tickets and energy drinks, but green vegetables and other healthy foods are expensive and scarce.
Higher-income New Yorkers (whose children attend that top ten percent of successful schools) can take advantage of a smorgasbord of healthy food options. Good restaurants are everywhere. Local food co-ops are prosperous and inviting; the Union Square Farmer’s Market is an oasis of culinary wonderfulness. However, these options are exclusive, both economically and spatially. Organic food stores, stocking local produce, present themselves as being “part of the solution” — and in some ways, they are — but they aren’t sited in poor neighborhoods. Not only that: folks who live in the food desert of East Harlem could, perhaps, hop on the Lex Ave subway and shop at the Union Square market — but by and large, they don’t.
It’s widely admitted that affordable housing isn’t provided by “the market” in New York (and many other cities) and must therefore be subsidized. Evidently the market doesn’t provide affordable healthy food in poor areas, either. Let’s make a public investment in food co-ops in the poorest neighborhoods. Wouldn’t that pay for itself in many ways? Local residents could work in the coop stores in exchange for lower food prices — and the stores could be advertised via our school-kid PR campaign!
8. Create a “Sister City” program to share and spread New York City’s best practices.
The greening of New York City will be an inclusive, organic, multilayered process. High school students will be able to proudly point out buildings they have helped to renovate. The whole campaign will have been promoted by kids’ efforts. Innovation and competition to create new kinds of green buildings will be exciting and newsworthy. The technologies, practices and procedures New York develops along the way will be available for use by any other city that’s willing. What better way to share the progress, then, than to partner up with other metropolises — less prosperous, perhaps, but faced with the same environmental challenges? The greening of nuestra hermana, Mexico City, perhaps?
9. Tax styrofoam containers, plastic utensils and plastic packaging.
Does anyone really believe these things aren’t too cheap? That they don’t entail huge external costs? That they’re desperately needed and no viable substitutes for them exist? Seriously. While we’re a it, other egregiously wasteful products could be targeted for Pigouvian tax treatment, such as non-rechargeable batteries and old-style incandescent light bulbs.
10. Identify and fund organic, natural solutions to flood control, such as oyster reefs.
New Yorkers have always loved their oysters. The delicious, slimy little creatures have been harvested and savored here for centuries. There’s a good reason for that: oysters like to live in the boundary zone where salt water and fresh water meet — and New York’s harbor offered a very large and accessible expanse of such waters. The gigantic reefs, slowly built by trillions of oysters, provided a highly effective natural seawall that protected the area from storm surges. Over the years, though, oyster-gobbling and harbor-dredging did away with the reefs. Eventually, water pollution rendered it impossible even to farm-raise oysters locally (but in recent years this industry has started to come back).
Wetlands also helped to stabilize the shorelines and mitigate erosion and storm damage; little by little, though, they were filled in and built on. In the Netherlands, a country experienced at storm-surge management, large tracts of valuable farmland was simply expropriated for use toward the general good of flood management. Some of this will undoubtedly need to be done along the shorelines of Brooklyn and Queens. A program is already under discussion to compensate homeowners for voluntarily moving out of these low-lying areas.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and as sea levels creep inexorably upward, New York City has no choice but to protect itself against increasingly severe storms and high waters. This represents a formidable engineering challenge, which will have many components. Existing buildings can be modified to make lower floors and underground areas waterproof; levees and floodgates can be built. It’s been prominently suggested, however, that efforts to renew the natural flood-protectors of wetlands and oyster reefs could play a vital role in the overall effort to preserve New York City in an era of rising seas and stronger storms.
1 & 2: What was that about Tax Policy?
We said above that the most important aspect of this entire program, the thing that would make every other part practicable, is to adopt a tax policy that would 1) Incentivize efficient land use and 2) Increase funding for public transportation, and make it free. Now, what sort of tax policy could be expected to do those things?
It would have to be quite different from what we have now. On these two pivotal issues — efficient land use and effectively funding public transportation — current tax policy pushes New York City in exactly the wrong directions.
The vastness and dynamism of New York City serves to obscure the fact that NYC is very significantly under-built. Citywide, the average building has only 51% of the indoor space that zoning allows on its site. In Manhattan’s Community District 5 — Midtown, the city’s highest-built area — 42.9% of sites have buildings that are less than half the allowable size (and 41.8% of the buildings in that district were built before 1940). Manhattan has 399 acres of privately-owned vacant land. Another 1,228 acres in Manhattan are all but vacant: they sport buildings whose assessed value is 20% or less of the value of the land they’re on. (Source: NYC Dept. of Finance Assessment Rolls)
Does it make any sense for the most expensive real estate in the United States to be so drastically underused? In terms of environmental sustainability, it’s clear that if people are not living and working in the densest, best-connected urban spaces, then they are doing so sprawled somewhere further out — using more roads, burning more gas, doing everything more wastefully, less synergistically. To see how this process Our tax system reinforces this behavior, by rewarding people for holding urban land as an investment, and by penalizing them for building. These bad incentives could be reversed by simply progressively decreasing the property tax applied to buildings, and increasing the tax on the land that lies beneath them.
Such a tax shift, in it’s unadulterated form, would have many benefits. Examples include drastically reducing urban sprawl and poverty. Normally, taxes are seen as an unfortunate necessity, a penalty that serves to reduce our supply of the things we want. This is not true of a tax on land value, however, because land value is not produced by the land’s owner; it is produced by the surrounding community, and public investment in making that site safe, efficient and desirable. A tax on land value simply recovers those community-created values.
Building a house on a nice little piece of land somewhere is still something that normal people can more or less accomplish on their own. This leads us to think of real estate as just one sort of thing: a building on a piece of land. In cities, however, because of the size and great risk of development, the real estate business divides into two essentially antithetical parts: the developers, who design, construct and operate buildings — and the land speculators. The latter group just holds sites. Perhaps they hold them entirely idle. More often, though, they put them to some minimal use, enough to pay the property tax (since there is little or no valuable structure on the site, the conventional property tax is, relatively, very low). A surface parking lot is ideal for this; so is a fast-food franchise.
To sum up a long story, then: we could stimulate efficient land use in cities by taking the community-created rental value of land out of speculator’s hands, and using it for public revenue. This was the proposal made by the American economist Henry George in his 1879 worldwide bestseller, Progress and Poverty. In recent years, this principle has been affirmed by such prominent economists as Joseph Stiglitz, Richard Arnott and William Vickrey, in what they call the Henry George Theorem. In essence, this theorem holds that public investment is reflected in land values — and that to the extent that local public investment is efficient, its cost can be completely paid by a levy on local land rents: no other revenue source is necessary.
This principle is perfectly obvious in the case of one vitally important fixture of urban life — which is, moreover, crucial to environmental sustainability: public transportation. The effect of high-quality public transportation on land value is well-known — so much so that “near trans” is a standard rent-justifying item in rental ads.
The Henry George Theorem implies that were the MTA funded by the land value that its service creates, there would be enough revenue to not only operate it, but to eliminate fares. (After all, someone who commutes to work every day pays over $1,300 per year in subway fares. That is part of what people are willing to pay to live in New York — so we know that eliminating the transit fare would raise land rents by that amount!)
The Tax Shift would Support Green Buildings
The property tax on buildings is a significant part of their annual cost; therefore it influences what gets built, the economic viability of various developments. It’s one big reason why “affordable housing” is seen as chronically unprofitable — and why new developments tend to be so big, and so luxuriously high-priced.
It’s generally true that tall buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than small, sprawled-out buildings surrounded by lots of pavement. It doesn’t follow, however, that a skyscraper like 432 Park Avenue, with its 10×10 foot windows on every wall, are bastions of sustainability.
Our proposal to set up a tradable-credit system to create green buildings would dovetail perfectly with the shift to land value taxation. The tax shift would remove taxation from buildings. The tradable credit system would effectively retain the taxation of buildings, to the extent that they failed to reduce their carbon footprint. Thus, not only would wasteful, inefficient buildings be taxed, but they would be taxed in an environment in which efficient buildings were simultaneously being un-taxed! If the city were to simultaneously adopt land value taxation and tradable credits for green buildings, their beneficial effects would reinforce each other.
What Are We Waiting For?
Climate change isn’t a “maybe.” It’s here. But the steps outlined are a win for everybody. There’s a tax-shift advocacy group that says, “New York City: the best place in the world — but it could be a whole lot better!” This town has the wealth, the spirit and the chutzpah to show the entire world how a prosperous and sustainable 21st-century city is done: without federal help, without, possibly, even Andrew Cuomo’s permission. So let’s get started. The alternative isn’t good.
It has been suggested that the Ebola crisis is less a public health crisis than an inequality crisis. My first response upon hearing this was, “Ya think!?” No blame to Jim Wallis for saying it; I’m glad he did. But the fact that it needed to be said is troubling, to say the least.
Thus far, the American political and media response to the news about Ebola has left me feeling ashamed of my country. Our outbreak of posturing and wagon-circling has been American Exceptionalism at its tawdriest. Respected people, astute enough to sit on the Congressional Homeland Security Committee, urgently demand that we “seal the borders! Ban flights from West Africa!” Why hasn’t Obama done that already?
Seal US borders?
Among the many reasons why that’s a bad idea, the most obvious is that there are hundreds of alternate routes; for a ban to be effective, it would have to be worldwide. But, it would be impossible to enforce a worldwide travel ban; people would sneak into all manner of places, making exposures that much harder to track down. Also, there is wide agreement that the need for people and resources to help fight the West African outbreak is so great that it cannot be met without the resources of commercial airlines.
I suppose it’s understandable, though, that we’d be a little freaked out by a gigantic outbreak in West Africa of a fatal disease that manifests itself in such symptoms as high fever, headache, vomiting and diarrhea. In Sierra Leone, currently the epicenter of this outbreak, some 7,500 people, mostly children, have died of it in the past year.
No, I’m not speaking of Ebola, but another disease: malaria. Sierra Leone has the world’s highest death rate from malaria. (It also has the world’s highest death rate from tuberculosis, which kills even more West Africans than malaria does.) This year, Ebola has killed a (comparatively) modest 3,000 people in Sierra Leone.
Not All the News from Africa is Bad
There has been some good news out of Africa recently. Economic growth is taking off, and a new middle class is emerging in many countries, skilled at leapfrogging into 21st-century communications via mobile phones. Innovative entrepreneurs are creating devices that bypass infrastructural deficiencies to meet the needs of real Africans. South Africa and, especially, Botswana are making real strides against government corruption. At the moment, the most compelling piece of good African news is the way Nigeria has carefully, methodically — and so far, successfully — controlled the threat of an Ebola outbreak. It could have gone far differently. Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, is a city of 21 million people.
If Nigeria, a country that’s infamous for epic mismanagement and corruption, can do what it takes to contain an outbreak of Ebola, then surely the United States can do it — and, initial missteps aside, the US almost certainly will do it. But, it is a costly, and tricky, process. Ebola is only contagious when victims have already begun to show symptoms — which occurs after an incubation period of up to 21 days. Those symptoms include severe vomiting and diarrhea, and patients can decline rapidly. As their disease becomes more acute, the concentration of the virus in bodily fluids increases; this means that health workers (or family members) caring for acute Ebola patients are at the greatest risk.
Equipment, and techniques, exist for dealing with such patients. However, they are expensive and cumbersome; practitioners have to be carefully trained. It can be done, though: in late September, CNN aired a report on how one woman in Liberia cared for four family members with Ebola without getting infected. We all hope the two Dallas nurses who contracted Ebola will recover soon. It is not the least bit surprising, though, that there would be initial hiccups in a nation’s response to such a tricky disease. Make no mistake, though: nobody, anywhere, thinks that people in the United States need to panic (nobody, that is, except the cynical self-promoters who seek to gain from our panic).
Sierra Leone & Liberia
Sierra Leone and Liberia have made great strides toward economic and social stability in recent years. With their devastating civil wars behind them, their economies have been growing at rates of 11-13% . Two Liberian women, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — the first woman to be elected President of a modern African nation — and peace activist Leymah Gbowee shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Liberia and Sierra Leone are comparable in size to North and South Carolina. They have long, lovely Atlantic coastlines, and are amply endowed with arable land and various natural resources.
The Carolinas have a combined economic output (GSP, Gross State Product) of $656.4 billion, while Sierra Leone and Liberia have a combined output of only $13.4 billion (GDP). Alas, these two nations are in no shape, in terms of medical infrastructure, to even combat the devastating diseases they were struggling with before the Ebola outbreak, diseases including: malaria, AIDS, dysentery, etc.
Some selected statistics (from the CIA World Factbook) should be enough to illustrate the point:
People under age 14
People per doctor
Female literacy rate
GDP per capita
Population below poverty line
In June of this year, Sierra Leone closed all schools due to the Ebola outbreak. In October, a school-by-radio program was announced. Its effectiveness will be limited, however, because only about 25% of families in the country own radios.
I have been emphasizing Sierra Leone because it is simpler to gather numbers for a single country, but most of what I’m saying about Sierra Leone applies to Liberia even more strongly. Indeed, it’s not easy to see why they benefit from being separate countries. Sierra Leone’s colonial history was tied with Great Britain while Liberia’s was with the United States, but their colonial, and post-colonial, politics were the same. Both powers cultivated tribal elites for powerful “overseer” roles that transferred intact into post-colonial politics. Recently, aided by the machinations of Liberian warlord (and convicted war criminal) Charles Taylor, both countries became embroiled in brutal civil wars. The war in Sierra Leone killed 50,000 people; Liberia’s killed more than 200,000.
This histories of Sierra Leone and Liberia are of course complicated. However, for the purpose of understanding their current health crisis, it is sufficient to oversimplify. They are both a product of colonialism. Boundaries were drawn in line with European interests, pitting rival groups against one another as part of a system of divide and conqueror. A class of elites/political pawns were posted to ruling positions. When independence came, the elites were poised to consolidate their power. In the Cold War political climate of the time, regimes vied for gifts of money and weapons from either the Soviets or the West. Political control bounced back and forth between “socialist” and “anti-socialist” regimes, but domestically the labels made little difference. People’s needs were never well-satisfied, which made them receptive to the promises of each new rebel faction that seized control.
From a distance, people are tempted to ask why these people can’t get their act together — but the reasons are not hard to decipher. According to many experts such as Paul Collier and Pádraig Carmody, perhaps the most important source of continued poverty and conflict in West Africa is natural resources. For example, Sierra Leone’s largest export is unsorted diamonds — precious stones scraped out of the ground and sold for much less than their improved value at, say Tiffany’s. The URF rebels in Sierra Leone paid Liberia’s Charles Taylor in diamonds for the weapons they used to escalate their civil war.
How much would it cost to wipe out Ebola?
I live in Central Maine, which, by US standards, is not a wealthy place. Frequently I see donation jars, in local stores, for a family whose house has been lost in a fire, or who has been visited with a very expensive injury or illness. People invariably fill those jars, but only after disaster strikes are they willing to give. It may be harder for us to wrap our minds around the suffering our neighbors in West Africa -but make no mistake, they are our neighbors. Our esteemed Congressional representatives have been making that point over and over, by telling us how easy it is for them to come and visit us.
At the national level, though, the cost of turning this terrible situation around is comparable to the small change I might toss into one of those local-relief jars. That may be hard to believe, but it really is. After the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the US sent 12,600 military personnel to a relief and rescue mission, various governments contributed $5 billion in direct aid, and private donors raised still more. Did that scale of relief effort cause any economic hardship? Does the reader even remember this?
The F-22 fighter jet just went on its first combat mission, successfully dropping bombs on an ISIL command-and-control building in Raqqah, Syria. The United States has a fleet of 190 of this state-of-the-art stealth fighter, at an overall cost of over $36 billion.
The US Navy has twelve full-size aircraft carriers. When one of these behemoths goes to sea, it does so with a retinue of ten escort ships; operating a single carrier battle group costs roughly $900 million per year.
I think we can afford to invest the funds necessary to prevent preventable diseases in West Africa. Don’t you?
Long Term Solution
We need to render such nations less vulnerable, unilaterally — by promoting democracy, transparency, and economic freedom. Economic freedom would consist of taxing these countries’ vast natural resources, and using the funds to improve medical infrastructure, among other things. Oil and diamonds are obvious examples, but the most important resource, one which all countries have, is land. Taxing it as a function of its market value would break up large feudal land holdings, making it available for poor subsistence farmers. In time, such a system would bolster domestic markets and reduce dependence on bargain-priced exports (and foreign loans). But it’s very hard to establish reasonable, sensible, long-term reforms when so many people, especially children, are dying before your eyes.
P.S.: The Impulse to Panic
Since the above article was filed, it has been reported that a doctor who volunteered in Guinea for Doctors Without Borders and returned, symptomless to New York City, has been diagnosed with Ebola. Before that, apparently, Dr. Craig Spencer did some normal traveling about the city. “See! See!” scream our friends at Fox News. Dr. Spencer was very familiar with Ebola’s pathology. He monitored his own condition carefully, and followed established procedures as soon as he developed a fever. (Initial reports that his fever was 103 degrees turned out to be a transcription error: it was actually 100.3.)
A woman, a nurse from New Jersey, was quarantined upon arrival at Newark Airport, and she has since developed a fever. This was done under a new policy announced by Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie; their two states will go beyond the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations and impose a 21-day quarantine on medical workers returning from Ebola-stricken countries. New York and New Jersey will also impose tougher screening procedures on people arriving from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea than those required by the federal government.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is likely that the NY/NJ restrictions will mean that fewer health workers will be willing to volunteer in West Africa, at a time when every possible hand is needed. The CDC has announced a new “active monitoring” system that seeks to severely limit the risk of new Ebola cases without the harmful effects of a travel ban or automatic quarantine.
Thus far there have been five cases of Ebola in the United States, and one death. It seems that Congressional Republicans and other fear-mongers won’t be satisfied unless there are no new cases — but that is not a realistic goal. We live in an intensely interconnected world, and freedom entails some risk: there are going to be some cases. I wonder how long it will take for the US Ebola death toll to reach 9 individuals. That’s the number of Americans killed, so far in 2014, in school shootings.
California, among many other places, is now in the grips of a freakishly intense drought. Yet, the state still wastes an awful lot of water. Golf courses and car-washes are obvious wasters, but agriculture is the thing that really sucks California dry.
As a whole, it diverts or pumps 43 million acre-feet of water each year to supplement its meager rainfall. In total, agriculture consumes 34 million acre-feet of that.
The economics of this can get a little bizarre. Water in California is heavily subsidized — a big reason why so many water-intensive crops are grown there. Fruit and nut trees need more water, but they also bring in much more revenue per acre than vegetables or other crops — and, they represent a long-term investment. That means that if water is scarce, farmers will tend to use it on the biggest water wasting crops. For example, almonds use a stunning 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year, enough for every person in the state to take a luxurious 22-minute shower every day. California produced 82% of the world’s almond crop in 2013.
According to Big Picture Agriculture, “Many of the methods known to conserve water and use it efficiently have been practiced for thousands of years in some very arid regions of the world with great success. The best systems require little maintenance while yielding maximum results.” The site goes on to list 35 methods, viable at a range of scales, for conserving irrigation water. Why are these methods not widely practiced in California? Essentially it’s because farmers are paid to waste water.
Of course, the problem is compounded when water is used to create products that are deeply wasteful in themselves. Producing a gallon of ethanol, for example, requires 193 gallons of water (see the Food and Energy sections below). The US plans to pare down ethanol production to a mere 15 billion gallons in 2015.
We feel guilty when we forget a container of leftovers in the fridge, it grows fuzz and we have to toss it, and I shudder to think how many tons of the nation’s french fries (not to mention our lettuce) get tossed into the trash. But to get a handle on the immense amount of nutrients today’s food system wastes, we have to go to the top of the food chain: we have to look at meat.
A lot has been written about all this; Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, for example, lays it out in gruesome detail. But for introduction, a well-documented New York Times article from January, 2008 does the job nicely. Here are some of the facts it presents:
The world’s total meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961. By 2013 it rose to 308 million tons.
2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles.
Though some 800 million people on the planet now suffer from hunger or malnutrition, the majority of corn and soy grown in the world feeds cattle, pigs and chickens.
About ten times more grain is required to produce the same amount of calories through grain-fed beef as through direct grain consumption.
Iowa alone produces 137,000 tons of pig excrement every day.
There can be no doubt that a system that subsidizes meat, by subsidizing grain, is detrimental both to the planet and to the health of all those meat-eaters, not to mention the suffering inflicted on the animals being slaughtered. To put it bluntly: it’s a heck of a lot of waste.
And it goes beyond mere eating. We’ve already mentioned the global poster child for insanely wasteful resource use: ethanol. A third of the US corn crop is used to produce the stuff. The world’s #3 producer of corn is Brazil (China is #2), but Brazil produces only a third of the amount of corn that US drivers burn in their cars.
There are so many ways to talk about our society’s waste of energy. We could discuss the sheer wattage of solar radiation that hits the earth each day, and the falling price of photovoltaics, or the untapped potential of wind and tidal power sources, or the astounding savings that could be found in ramping up public transportation, and using energy-efficient vehicles. A 2009 cover story in Scientific American showed how the entire world could get all of its energy — for transportation as well as electricity — from wind, water and solar sources by 2030, using tweaks to existing technology.
Of course, we can’t discuss the waste of good energy resources without mentioning the squandering of both human and material resources in wars, and preparation for wars, over the control of fossil fuel resources. Our immense military establishment is, of course inherently wasteful — because military assets are designed to be consumed in the task of destruction. Not only that, military operations themselves use staggering amounts of energy. Here are some astounding examples:
The US military consumes more energy than all of Nigeria.
In 2006 alone, the Air Force consumed the same amount of fuel US airplanes consumed during WWII (between December 1941 and August 1945): 2.6 billion gallons.
F-15 fighter jets burn 1,580 gallons of fuel per hour.
Over 70 percent of the tonnage required to position today’s US Army into battle is fuel.
Why do we squander our energy resources so outrageously, when we know that continuing to burn fossil fuels will bring disastrous, irreversible consequences? It’s because the alternatives are, basically, unthinkable to the current political establishment. I’m not saying our energy alternatives are unworkable, impracticable or even present too hard an adjustment. The problem is that in terms of our political economy, our international relations, our sense of who’s on top and in control, they’re unthinkable. Imagine! They’re saying we need international cooperation to protect the global climate. Up to now, international relations has always been about self-interest: individual and corporate, mostly, though occasionally people pull together for the sake of national self-interest. But to deal with climate change, we must appeal to global self-interest. That’s still self-interest, mind you, but it’s far more enlightened.
By 1600 the British Isles were pretty much cleared of timber, save the inviolate estates of nobles. One of the pressing concerns that led to the earliest North American settlements was the prodigious supply of wood to be found there. Wood was the first cargo that the failed Virginia settlement of 1608 tried to send back. The pattern was repeated in the United States. Prior to the civil war, wood provided over 90% of fuel for homes and industries in the US. The coal was there — it was already being used extensively in Britain — but the States had a well-developed and influential timber industry. The bottom line is that we persistently wasted wood in the United States until we truly had no other alternative.
4. The Vote
We US citizens are justifiably proud of our democratic, constitutional political system — yet one wonders why we make so little use of it. I live in the little town of Jackson, Maine, pop. 548 in the 2010 census. People in Maine are proud of their democratic traditions and protective of their suffrage; recently Maine resoundingly defeated a ballot issue to do away with same-day registration, and we’re one of only 14 states that allows convicted felons to vote. But — our most recent election was an off year: no national, state or even local offices to be decided; it turned out that the only thing on the ballot was the school district’s budget. Now, the school budget is an issue about which a lot of people in our little town have loud complaints and strong opinions. I went in to vote at about four in the afternoon. “Slow day?” I asked the dutiful poll-watcher lady. She sighed and consulted her clipboard. “You’re number six.”
Average voter turnout in the United States in the 28 national elections since 1945, in terms of the portion of the voting-age population, is 47.7%. That’s 138th in the world. The top ten in voter turnout are emerging democracies that had only had a few elections during that period. But Australia has had 22 elections since 1945; their turnout rate has averaged 84.2%.
It could be that we’re jaded about voting because there seems to be so little to vote for; American politics is mired in partisan gridlock and big-money influence. The current US Congress has single-digit approval ratings, but guess what! Because of the magic of gerrymandering, the number of incumbent congresspersons who will lose their bids for reelection will most likely be in the single digits! Thus, the most expensive election in world history (under current rules, every US election will almost certainly cost more than the previous one) will yield the absolute minimum amount of actual legislative or policy change.
There are commonsense reasons why citizens really ought to use their voting power. The most basic one is that when fewer people vote, the groups who are more likely to vote gain more power over the overall outcome. This basic fact is powerfully used by politicians and their strategists. The 2000 presidential election in the US was very close; much was made over a few thousand contested votes in Florida, and the 2.7% of the popular vote that Ralph Nader managed to get. Nevertheless, George W. Bush was “elected” by 47.9% of the popular vote, which amounted to 27.4% of the voting-age population. Think voting matters?
In 1904, New Yorkers thought their brand-new subway system was the swellest thing ever. And it was! It expanded rapidly, growing into world’s largest railway system, efficiently moving millions upon millions of people to work, to play at Coney Island, to cheer at Yankee Stadium. The New York subway stuck to its five cent fare until 1948. By that time, of course, there were lots of automobiles in the city; in 1904 there were only horses.
The city of Austin, Texas is known as the state’s least scary city to non-Texans. It has the U. of Texas Longhorns, nice museums, an incredible music scene, and interesting historical spots — all in all, a nice place to visit. But it’s rough on unfamiliar drivers. Austin is encircled by ring upon ring of elevated, limited-access highways with endlessly sweeping ramps; it can literally take you twenty minutes to reach a destination that is visible from where you’re standing. “You think this is bad,” say Austin people, “Wait til you see Houston.”
People in Austin wonder whether its already Texas-sized highway system will be able handle the traffic load in a few years. Things get pretty backed-up during rush hours — and, all those new flyways will need to be maintained. That’s not a trivial issue. I have been traveling in and out of New York City on I-95 for many years, and I don’t recall ever not seeing construction on the stretch between New Haven, Connecticut and the New York State line. That means that at existing levels of traffic, using existing road-maintenance techniques, this stretch of highway simply cannot be fixed before it wears out.
There are a zillion examples of other mind-bendingly egregious waste. This is public infrastructure that your tax dollars have bought. I’ll just make one more observation before moving on. Infrastructure capacity is the most important consideration in how cities arrange zoning requirements. If zoning allows, say, twelve-story buildings with a certain footprint in a neighborhood, you can bet that the city figures it has sufficient water, transportation, education and public-safety facilities to handle buildings of that size. Would you care to hazard a guess at how much of the zoned-for, buildable space in New York City is actually built, as of this year? Fifty-one percent. Other major cities are even less densely built. Our cities could hold a whole lot more people than they do, and these people could significantly lower their environmental footprint by moving into cities — and even more so if cities embraced green building techniques. Yet we keep pumping out the parking lots, the beltways, the big-box superstores…
6. Borrowed Money
There is, by many accounts, a debt crisis in modern society. The national debt of the United States stands at about $17 trillion, or some $55.9K per citizen, which is a bit more than the US’s personal debt per citizen, which stands at $52.2K. The US Debt Clock website shows many interesting facts; its numbers adjust in real time, which lets us see that our national deficit is currently decreasing by about two thousand dollars per second. Also, US debt held by foreign countries, which stands at around $5.9 trillion, is currently decreasing by some $4K per second. So the trend lines seem to be positive — but any way you slice it, it’s still a lot of money to be owing.
As wages and household incomes have declined, people have taken on more and more personal debt. As of 2012, the average US household with at least one credit card owed $15.9K in credit card debt, much of it at high-teens interest rates. But, of course, not every family can get a credit card. Payday and car-title lenders lie in wait for the vulnerable. Some states, such as Texas, do not place any limits on the rates such lenders can charge.
But, you might ask, why is “borrowed money” placed in the category of things that are wasted? Well, it’s wasted, by definition, if new loans are taken out just to pay back old ones. Consumers who do this often find themselves in a spiral of debt, leading to bankruptcy, and permanent economic hardship. “Deficit Hawks” warn that our nation faces this predicament too. There are significant differences between the finances of a nation and those of a family: the nation can, within limits, print its own money. However, money can’t just be inflated or borrowed forever without consequences.
Not everyone borrows out of desperation; businesses often borrow money because they can make more profitable use of the cash they have on hand. Nations, similarly, can choose to borrow during economic downturns, times when raising taxes would further depress the economy. Such borrowing can be seen as sensible and sustainable.
However, if one is borrowing more than one would prefer to borrow, then one will most likely not be borrowing on the most advantageous terms. Problem borrowing comes when one just doesn’t have enough income to pay the bills. That’s the borrowed money that gets wasted, and its amount increases when the economy turns downward, and when there are more poor people.
7. Human Potential
And yet, modern society perpetrates one waste that is bigger — much bigger — than all of these.
[The] greatest of all the enormous wastes which the present constitution of society involves is that of mental power. How infinitesimal are the forces that concur to the advance of civilization, as compared to the forces that lie latent! How few are the thinkers, the discoverers, the inventors, the organizers, as compared with the great mass of the people! Yet such men are born in plenty; it is the conditions that permit so few to develop…. Turn to the lives of great men, and see how easily they might never have been heard of. Had Caesar come of a proletarian family; had Napoleon entered the world a few years earlier; had Columbus gone into the Church instead of going to sea; had Shakespeare been apprenticed to a cobbler or chimney sweep; had Sir Isaac Newton been assigned by fate the education and the toil of an agricultural laborer… what would their talents have availed? But there would have been, it will be said, other Caesars or Napoleons, Columbuses or Shakespeares…. This is true. And it shows how prolific is our human nature. As the common worker is on need transformed into queen bee, so, when circumstances favor his development, what might otherwise pass for a common man rises into a hero or leader, discoverer or teacher, sage or saint. So widely has the sower scattered the seed, so strong is the germinative force that bids it bud and blossom. But, alas, for the stony ground, and the birds and the tares! For one who attains his full stature, how many are stunted and deformed.