Tag Archive 'economics'

Nov 05 2010

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Stark Landscape

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Suddenly the leaves are gone.  They’re on the ground, that is, and the lush forest has turned into so many sticks.  At the same time, we are now spending a third of our waking hours in the dark, and daylight is muted by clouds that appear to be more common this time of year.  The surrounding countryside, ablaze with color just a few weeks ago, is suddenly all brown and gray.

Here in northern Vermont, the harshness of November comes hard and fast.  I’m never quite ready for it.  I raked leaves yesterday, thoroughly enjoying brisk air while doing so, but a cold rain began a few hours after I finished.  Good chance that the rain will turn to snow today.  That means I got that task done just in time.

The physical landscape isn’t the only thing that looks dreary.  The political landscape these days is just as stark.  An angry, frustrated electorate voted out Democrats and voted in Republicans this week, causing a transfer of power in the House.  Why?  Because of the bad economy, of course.  Wall Street might be doing okay, but unemployment still hovers around ten percent, consumer confidence is still down, and foreclosures continue.  Uncertainty persists.  The general sentiment is that the Democrats have failed us.  Can the Republicans do better?  Probably not, but some kind of change is needed.  The desperation is palpable.

If I had any solutions to our country’s woes, I’d run for office.  But I’m fresh out of ideas, as most thinking folks are.  All I know is that Washington gridlock will only prolong the pain, preventing any significant change from occurring.  Democrats and Republicans will drag out the same old ideological arguments, and the economy will limp along for another two years.  Yeah, a stark landscape to say the least.

The seasons change and most of us find ways to adapt.  That much is certain.  Not being a big one for winter sports, I’ll do more thinking and writing in the long months ahead, and get outdoors less.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As for the bigger picture, well, I’ll try not to stress out about it.  We had our chance to vote.  Now things must simply run their course.  Enough said.  Just don’t expect be to break into song when the Powers That Be offer me a tax cut.  I know all too well that, in the long run, that won’t fix a damned thing.

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Oct 07 2009

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Forward Thinking

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I recently read an article in Scientific American titled “Squeezing More Oil from the Ground.”   Since Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oil executive, wrote the piece, I approached it with great skepticism.  But Maugeri convinced me that another hundred year’s worth of oil can be extracted from the earth, using secondary and tertiary recovery methods.  Resourceful fellows, these oil barons.  As global demand increases and the price of oil rises, they’ll simply inject water, gas or thinning agents into the ground to push more oil to the surface.  So we don’t have to give up our gas-guzzling trucks and cars anytime soon.  That is, if global warming isn’t factored into the discussion.

Here in Vermont, we’re trying to decide whether or not to extend the license for our nuclear plant another twenty years, despite the fact that there’s been trouble with the cooling towers.  Those in favor of the extension argue that the cost of decommissioning the plant exceeds the funds allocated, so electric rates would have to go up to cover the difference.  What do you think?  How many things can you find wrong with this picture?

Meanwhile, a local newspaper is running a “green” section in its Sunday edition, celebrating the many different ways that individuals, cooperatives and small businesses are making the world a better place with their eco-conscious activities.  Rarely is there any talk about what large, “clean tech” corporations are doing, thus perpetuating the myth that the world’s environmental problems can only be solved by feel-good, grassroots organizations.

A year ago, the OPEC nations figured out that Westerners won’t grouse about the price of oil if it hovers around $70 a barrel, so now they are managing their supplies accordingly.  As long as the global recession persists, supply will continue outstripping demand.  Are we to assume that things will always be this way?

I could give more examples but this will do.  There is much talk in business circles these days about “forward thinking,” with all eyes towards productivity and profit, yet rarely is there any discussion beyond that.  In non-business circles, utopian dreams take the place of forward thinking, and people cultivate beliefs that business and government aren’t necessary, or that government can fix what business breaks.  Either way, they are sure to be disappointed.

When I step out of the woods, turning my attention away from mud, aching joints and biting flies, and towards what I find in the newspaper, I am amazed by the absurdity of it all.  The one constant in all the misery that humankind creates for itself is an utter lack of insight.  Forward thinking doesn’t really exist  – at least not in any meaningful sense.  So please excuse me for not taking a stand the next time some hot topic is being discussed.  It seems to me that, more often than not, we are having the wrong conversation.

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May 20 2009

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Money Matters

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Even though I don’t consider myself a materialist, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about money.  Who hasn’t?  For most of us living in middle-class America these days, money is more about survival than it is the endless acquisition of goods.  My wife, Judy, and I are concerned about keeping a roof over our heads, food in the cupboards and the other basics of life.  We worry about future prospects for some kind of retirement, health care, and all the rest of it.  These are hard times, certainly – not nearly as bad as the Great Depression, we are told, but worse than anything we’ve ever seen before.  And we keep wondering when it’s all going to turn around.

The other day Judy remarked that springtime seems especially beautiful this year.  I agree, it is.  Why is that?  I suspect that it has something to do with survival, with all the time and energy we’ve devoted to money matters since the economy took a turn for the worse.  After a long pow-wow about cutting back our expenses, just in case, we looked up from our porch chairs and were pleasantly surprised to find the world just as beautiful as it has always been – as if money doesn’t matter at all.  How strange.

Money does matter, and what we are experiencing in America these days is what most of the people on this planet deal with every day.  Many of them are worse off than the average unemployed American – much, much worse off.  I read somewhere recently that a billion people go to bed hungry every night.  That’s almost one in six people.  Simple facts like this keep things in perspective.

How dare I ramble on and on about the wonders of wild nature while a billion bellies are growling, when the future is so uncertain!  Sometimes I am ashamed of my wild thoughts and feel guilty about the long walks in the woods that I enjoy while so many people are suffering.  Then someone else mentions the scent of lilacs in the air, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker knocking, or the luxuriant feel of a handful of dirt.  Then I nod my head in deep reverence.  These are things that keep us going.  These are things that matter.

What is the point of living if there is no joy in it?  What is easier to enjoy than a colorful sunset, a cool breeze in the morning, a few notes sung by a songbird, or anything green?  When one’s belly is full, of course.  I don’t know how to turn the economy around or how to fix all the world’s woes, but I do know that we’ll be in deep trouble the day we loose our appetite for the simple pleasures of life.  Without it we would be only so many desperados bouncing off each other in search of a quick fix.  So let’s try to enjoy the things commonly found in nature even as we take care of the difficult business at hand.

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May 01 2009

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The Politics of Nature

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People naturally assume that I’m eager to save the planet from the ravages of industrialism, protect all endangered species from extinction, and preserve as much wild forest as possible.  Surely someone as passionate about wild nature as I am must be an environmental activist, or so the conventional line of reasoning goes.  This assumption is made by liberals and conservatives alike, and confusion registers visibly in their faces when I deny it.  And when I add that I reject “-Ist” and “-Ism” altogether, that I’m too much of a philosopher to be truly political, most people peg me as a fence-sitter and leave it at that.  Who can blame them?  Action is what matters in this world of ours.  Words are only words.

I studied too much political theory back in college – that’s the problem.  I learned all I could learn about Socialism, Fascism, Republicanism, Democracy, Theocracy and the rest of it.  I even cultivated my own alternative political philosophy for a while.  But all that is just theory.  Politics is the concentration and exercise of power to project one’s own cherished values onto the world.  Ideology is merely the excuse needed to get the job done, to mobilize other people to action.  As a would-be propagandist and pamphleteer, I see right through the advertisements, both left and right.  In other words, I know bullshit when I see it, and no “Ism” is an exception to the rule, not even Anarchism.

Generally speaking, I am reluctant to voice this opinion of mine – and that’s all it is, really – because there’s no advantage in offending nearly everyone else on the planet.  But make no mistake about it, I don’t care to wave any flag, even one with a picture of Mother Earth on it.

While activists break into two distinct camps, warring with each other in the political arena, global warming continues, thousands of species disappear, and the wild forest grows smaller. When the liberals are in power, laws are passed protecting the environment – keeping Big Business from trashing it, that is.  When the conservatives are in power, those laws are rescinded or new ones are passed, enabling businessmen to profit from the use and abuse of natural resources no matter what.  Back and forth the pendulum swings, year-in and year-out.  To what end?  Do you really believe that one side will ultimately win this battle?  Do you really think that an activist of any stripe can do anything that can’t be undone?

What’s at stake here is quality of life – the quality of our lives, not those of trees, whales or spotted owls.  It’s really more a matter of economics, not politics.  When enough people grasp the true cost of their shopping mall world, and what is lost in the process of perpetuating it, there will be little resistance to salvaging what’s left of the wild.  Most people act in their own best interest.  All any real lover of wild things needs to do is show them exactly what’s at stake.  Then nature will take its course.

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Apr 02 2009

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Building Walls to Save Forests

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I read in the newspaper yesterday that the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro is going to build ten-foot walls around the slums of that big city in order to protect the nearby urban rainforest from further deforestation.  This is wrong on so many levels that it makes my head spin.  But I can’t think of a better issue to ponder today, as the G20 tackles the world’s economic woes.

Naturally, as a guy who has made woods wandering the central focus of his life, I’m all for preserving forests wherever they may be.  That’s why I get this sick feeling when I read stories like this one.  The Rio government is pandering to the likes of me – to affluent, nature-loving people in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, who are deeply concerned about the mass extinction of plants and animals as well as global warming.  Yeah, they know how to package it.

Reality check:  the burgeoning slums in question have destroyed 500 acres of urban rainforest during the last three years.  Since 2000, about 150,000 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest have disappeared.  Quite a difference, I’d say.  Besides that, isn’t the term “urban rainforest” something of an oxymoron?

Using the Internet, I dug deeper into this matter only to learn that the project managers think this wall will significantly reduce the drug-related violence spreading from the slums to the city’s richer quarters.  How convenient.  Two solutions for the price of one.

Yes, Brazil is one of the countries attending the G20 summit.  With the world’s tenth largest economy and a population of nearly 200 million, it’s force to be reckoned with, no doubt.  But when I read about walls being built around slums to save urban forests, I can’t help but wonder who’s in charge there and what their priorities are.  Looking out for their poorest citizens isn’t at the top of their list, obviously.

The world is small and getting smaller.  What happens in a rainforest thousands of miles away affects those of us living here.  What happens to the Brazilian people affects us, as well.  Both the economy and the environment are global, so we should care about what happens in faraway places.  But in the Age of Information, bullshit travels at the speed of light.  We would be wise to keep this in mind the next time the politicos here, at the G20 summit, and elsewhere tell us what they are doing to make things better.

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Mar 10 2009

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Malthusian Economics

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When ecologists speak of the limits of growth, conservative businessmen everywhere cringe.  It’s as if the tree-huggers were uttering blasphemy – as if the very tenets of capitalism were being dragged through the streets then nailed to a cross.  Ecology is just a cover for socialism, these conservatives say, and it will ultimately undermine all economic progress.  This attitude amazes me.  What amazes me even more is that so many ecologists also believe that capitalism and ecology are mutually exclusive belief systems.  Doesn’t anyone read Thomas Malthus anymore?

In 1798, the political economist Thomas Malthus published The First Essay on Population in which he stated quite clearly that population, when unchecked, increases geometrically, while the food subsistence increases only arithmetically.  This line of reasoning is ironclad, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to see where it leads.  Planet Earth is a finite quantity.  Eventually, given enough people gobbling away at it, we’ll use up all the resources here.  It’s only a matter of when.  The key phrase is “when unchecked.”  But that, of course, implies limits to population growth, either man-made or natural.

Malthusian economics isn’t so much a doomsday scenario as it is a way of quantifying human misery.  The prospect of starvation cuts right to the heart of the matter, but human misery can manifest itself in many other ways.  War, disease, famine, wholesale death – when the Four Horsemen ride, there is plenty of human misery to go around.  The real question is: why should the rich care?

Some rich people believe that their property rights are sacrosanct, yet there is nothing written in nature that prevents one life form from seizing the resources held by another. How easily we forget this as we go about our affairs in the complex web of relations that we call civilization.  The struggle for existence dominates all of nature.  In the wild, any anything goes.  It is only when we, as humans, think, plan ahead and make rules that the game changes.  So what will it be then?  What rules best promote the well being of all parties involved?  I think this is the point that Malthus was trying to make.

Green economics are coming hard and fast.  Why?  Because it’s in the best of interest of the vast majority of people on this planet to slow population growth, optimize natural resources, convert to renewable energy, preserve what’s left of wild nature, and create a world where our kind can be happy and healthy for hundreds of years to come, maybe even thousands.  The alternative to this, as Malthus was trying to show us, is wholesale misery and death.

We’re the ones in the driver’s seat.  We’re the ones with the big brains, thinking ahead, making plans, dreaming up new rules and living accordingly.  So what will it be then?  Green economics or Malthusian?  Civilization is a human construct.  The choice is ours.

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Nov 21 2008

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Two Realities

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As a lover of all things wild, I find myself torn nearly every day by two distinct realities: the economic and the natural.  Theoretically, there is no conflict between the two since economics mimics the rules of survival laid out by nature, and nature follows the basic principles of economics as it goes about its affairs.  But on a practical level, the tension is palpable.

Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of environmentalism, railed against what he saw as the crass materialism of his day.  “I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in,” he complained in his journals, “They are all ruled for dollars and cents.”  Anyone who has committed large chunks of his/her life to writing and thinking understands this all too well.  While blank books abound in our day and age, the time to actually sit down and write something in them remains a precious commodity.  Writing, ruminating, walking, or merely observing wild nature – all the activities we associate with that Concord nonconformist require time, money and energy that could be devoted to earning a living.

Yesterday I mentioned to a shopkeeper that I might have to curtail my writing when my wife retires, that opening a bookshop remains my fallback plan if I can’t generate enough money writing.  “Why can’t you do both?” he asked, then I asked him what he does other than run his business.  He fell silent.  Yes, I did a little writing while running a bookstore back in the 1980s, but nothing compared to what I’ve written since then, while working part time and relying on my wife’s income.  I didn’t get into the woods much back then, either.  We all make choices, and often those choices are heavily influenced by economic necessity.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of having a cabin in the woods not all that different from Thoreau’s shack on Walden Pond.  Nowadays I see that cabin as something that competes with my writing as well as my wife’s own cost-dependent desires.  Everything requires money, and while I could build that cabin cheap enough, I haven’t the land upon which to put it.  Keep in mind the fact that Thoreau built his cabin on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, who shared the same dream.  Emerson was too busy writing and lecturing for a living to follow through on his own cabin dream so Henry did it for him.  So much for self-reliance.

The problem here, of course, is that I’m trying to be a nature writer much like both Emerson and Thoreau.  Not a journalist, a biologist, or anything practical like that, but one who delves deeply into the wild then writes down whatever comes to mind.  Truth is, there has never been much market demand for this kind of thing.  During the better part of his life, Thoreau supported himself by surveying land and running his father’s pencil factory.  Short of an inheritance or a hefty trust fund, we all make hard choices.

The choices we make in life reflect our core values.  This is true for both individuals and society at large.  The tension between the aesthetics of the wild and material well being is as fundamental as the water we drink, the land we walk, and the air we breathe.  There is no getting around this.  At all levels, we make choices that determine the fate of both our selves and the global community.  And this is why every ideology contains at least one lie.  Theory never matches practicality.  Theoretically, we can have it all.  Realistically, something has to give.

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