A Thirst for Economic Change?

by Erik Alm

I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it. –John Stuart Mill, On the Stationary State

ErikAlm2In the face of global resource shortages and the alarming rate at which we are losing species, many of us share the hope that J.S. Mill so ominously communicates in one of his better-known quotes. But what will it take to catalyze the shift to an economic state that respects our natural boundaries? Perhaps the catalyst could be a life-altering dearth of a critical resource that, until recently, most of us in the United States have taken for granted: water.

The idea that a water shortage like the one California is currently facing could cool the economic engines that have elevated the state to the eighth-largest economy in the world has been discussed in local media and state government offices alike. The Desert Sun, a paper serving the rapidly-growing Coachella Valley in the southern part of the state, recently posed the question of whether water worries will slow development in the valley. The New York Times expressed its worries about California’s continuing economic vigor by stating the drought “. . . is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature.”

CA Drought - Kevin Cortopassi

Many proposed policies that could stem our water problems are discarded because they are seen as anti-growth. Photo Credit: Kevin Cortopassi

Replying to questions like these, the head of the State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus, says “We have a long way to go before we have tapped out our resources,” and prospects for economic growth are still as bright as ever. The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office reinforces this view in a brief report released in mid-April. Citing a recent Wall Street Journal survey of economists, the report concludes “. . . we currently do not expect the drought to have a significant effect on statewide economic activity or state government revenues.”

Many of these rosy economic predictions rely upon hopeful qualifiers such as assuming the drought will be short-lived, that the recently imposed water restrictions will not be expanded, or that water districts will continue to receive adequate allocations from the State Water Project. These assumptions may prove to be overly optimistic.

Surface water, which normally covers 60% of the state’s demand, is predicted to be in even worse shape this year due to the lack of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. California’s State Water Project, which distributes this water throughout the state, supplying drinking water to more than 23 million people and helping to irrigate agricultural lands in the Central Valley, was able to deliver to water districts only 5% of their contracted amounts in 2014. Another important source of surface water, the Colorado River, is also showing the effects of extreme drought with Lake Powell, the system’s biggest reservoir, below 45% of its capacity.

Groundwater, which is used to supply the other 40% of the state’s demands, and up to 60% during times of inadequate surface flows, faces similar stresses. “The withdrawals far outstrip the replenishment. We can’t keep doing this” says Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist who studies water supplies in California. The recent well-drilling boom that is providing California farmers with at least a temporary solution to their water woes seems to be adding urgency to his words.

As the search for additional water becomes more desperate, some have been thirstily eyeing the amount allocated to ecosystems. California’s Department of Water Resources estimates that 50% of the state’s water is used by the environment, 40% by agriculture, and 10% by urban users. Even with a quarter of the state’s native freshwater fishes being listed as either threatened or endangered and many more headed in the same direction, some interest groups have advocated reducing environmental water allocations, even at the peril of critical habitats.

This “people versus fish” debate is largely due to a misunderstanding about the way the environmental use statistic is calculated. Most of the water “used by the environment” flows in state and federally protected rivers in the sparsely populated North Coast where there are few alternative uses. In the majority of the state, environmental use of water is far from dominant at 33%, with agriculture accounting for 53% and urban users at 14%. Noting the dramatic devastation that California wetlands have suffered over the last 150 years, including the loss of Tulare and Owens Lakes and the removal of 95% of the native vegetation along Central Valley creeks and rivers, the state appears determined to allocate more water to natural systems. A 2014 bond measure approved up to $200 million to acquire water rights for environmental use and funding mechanisms for restoration of wetlands are also being sought.

Another hope for increased water security is desalination. Plants similar to the one in Santa Barbara, CA, which is being restarted after years of laying idle, have been used to provide a technological solution to water shortages in some parched and energy-rich parts of the world. However, due to high initial capital costs, stringent permitting requirements, huge energy demands, potential environmental harm, and a final product that is more than four-times as expensive as surface water (and nearly double the cost of building a water recycling system), it seems unlikely that desalination will be able to make up for the increasing shortfalls that our current trajectory of growth will bring.

In an apparent public admission that the state has no viable ideas for increasing supply, on the first of April, like a bad joke, Governor Brown called for the state’s first ever mandatory water use restrictions. “Folks realize we have now reached the limits of supply, so the focus is on demand.” says Heather Cooley, water program director for the Pacific Institute, a water-resources research group in Oakland, CA. Proposals for reducing demand range from increasing water efficiency to $10,000 fines for residents and businesses caught being wasteful. However, some people have pointed out the hypocrisy of the water restrictions. Craig Ewing, president of the Desert Water Agency which serves Palm Springs and other communities, has heard it often, “The public is faster to react to these things than governmental institutions, and so the public is already saying, ‘Why are we seeing new development when we’re being asked to cut back?’ And the governments are going to be slower to figure out, ‘Well, how do we deal with all of this?’”

Currently, many proposed policies that could effectively stem our water problems are immediately discarded as unworkable because they are seen as anti-growth. Temporary building moratoria for areas without a secure water source are a case in point. However, if the public were better informed about the negative consequences to their quality of life from policies that support continued growth even in the face of critical resource shortages, perhaps they would favor policies with growth-curbing corollaries instead. Unfortunately, for some in the state, like those in East Porterville whose homes are currently without any running water at all, the choice of whether or not to grow their community has been obviated. Their focus now is firmly fixed on survival.

Earth Day Message: Double the Native Forest Cover

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEarth Day began 45 years ago on April 22, 1970. The first Earth Day mobilized huge numbers of people to become active in efforts to curtail pollution and protect important ecosystems like forests. As we approach Earth Day this year, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network, Randy Hayes, and other visionary leaders are calling for a doubling of the native forest canopy on the earth. They are circulating a petition calling on all people to work together to achieve this goal. (See petition below.)

A powerful reforestation initiative will help achieve the objectives of a steady state, sustainable, true cost economy. Meaningful employment can be increased by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads. Restoring the natural balance of greenhouse gases can foster a healthy society.

Here is the big economic connection: forests help regulate or moderate the global temperature, which is essential to prevent enormous losses in grain yields–losses that could spawn food riots and wars. Plant ecologists estimate that at high temperatures, every increase of one degree Celsius causes a 10% drop in grain yields. An urgent global effort is underway to hold the increase below two degrees Celsius. This cannot be achieved unless changes are made to save and restore forest cover.

In addition to the threats to grain production from global temperature increases, the dramatic loss of native forest cover is causing devastating harm to the life support systems of our planet. For instance, forest destruction is a major cause of loss of plant and animal species, water loss, desiccation of the land, soil erosion, and sedimentation of fishery habitat. The loss of forests exacerbates climate destabilization, leading to more severe and costly weather disasters now amounting to several hundred billion dollars per year. The destruction of forests is leading humanity away from a sustainable civilization and a prospering true cost economy.

Here are a few facts about what has been happening to forests this century. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates 12% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and degradation of forests. About 30% of the world’s forests have been cleared and another 20% degraded. Only about 15% remain in relatively healthy native condition. Global deforestation rates are severe, with 13 million hectares having been lost each year from 2000-2010.

Reforestation - USFS Region 5

Photo Credit: USFS Region 5

Fortunately, there is hope because experts have identified a huge potential for restoring forest cover equivalent to an area twice the size of China (2 billion hectares). Even in severely degraded zones such as the Loess Plateau in China, some successful measures have curbed erosion and brought back a lush vegetative cover that has improved food security, biodiversity, and local income. Since Earth Day 1970, impressive efforts have been taken to set aside forest lands for parks, wilderness, wildlife, spiritual contemplation, and protection of water supplies. We can build on these.

Across the globe, there is hope because communities with legal rights to at least 513 million hectares of forest, making up one-eighth of the world’s forests, have succeeded in forest preservation. These community forests hold an estimated 38 billion tons of carbon. If these forests that act as carbon sinks were eliminated, there would be a huge increase of carbon released into the atmosphere. WRI calculates that this amounts to 29 times the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.

One example of the success of forest communities can be seen in the Brazilian Amazon, the largest intact forest in the world. From 2000 to 2012, deforestation was 11 times lower in indigenous community forests that have strong legal recognition and government protection than in other parts of the Amazon.

We are at a crossroads. The courageous step called for in the petition below could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.



To Everyone Seeking a Just and Ecologically Sustainable Society:
Doubling the Size of Native Forest Canopy Will Help Us Get There

To live in harmony with the planet and each other we need the courage to act on a shared vision of a better world. And we need to act NOW.

We, the undersigned, put forth these collective thoughts and invite others to share their visions.

  • We know forests are a fundamental expression of the natural world and are key to supporting all life on Earth.
  • We have witnessed how the destruction of the world’s forests degrades the quality of human life and undermines the prospects for productive and vibrant economies.
  • We know that carbon-rich natural habitats are critical to the restoration of natural climatic patterns.
  • We believe we must reverse the frightening concentration of greenhouse gases–now at 400 PPM–and get back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels of 280 PPM.

We believe that this dramatic mathematical U-turn is our only hope of preventing the blue sky from turning into a toxic furnace.

We, the undersigned, call for:

  • A halt to all deforestation.
  • A doubling of the native forest canopy in less than two decades.

Furthermore, we call for this with the intent to:

  • Increase meaningful employment by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads.
  • Help return the natural balance of greenhouse gases and foster a healthy society.
  • Maintain natural functions to purify the air and water and support the web of life.

Finally, we call upon all people–our communities and our business and political leaders–to work together to achieve this goal.

Such a courageous step could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

When heading for the edge of a cliff, the solution may be as simple as turning around and going in a different direction. Native forest protection and restoration is key to this sensible U-turn. A shift to a better world is within our grasp, but we must collectively envision and enact it.

This is the great U-turn we seek.


Randy Hayes, Executive Director Foundation Earth
Eric Dinerstein, Director, Biodiversity & Wildlife Solutions RESOLVE
Don Weeden, Executive Director Weeden Foundation
Andy Kimbrell, Executive Director Center for Food Safety
Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus Friends of the Earth

Add your signature here.

A New Economy Will Help Save Rivers and Fisheries

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderGlobalization and cheater economics have been destroying the world’s great rivers and their fisheries. Most people know about the devastation of rivers from water pollution, but not as many are aware of the significant impacts of big dams, river engineering, and real estate development in and on top of rivers. These activities can seriously damage fisheries and impair the natural functions of riverine ecosystems. A true-cost, steady state economy would, for the most part, avoid the continuing tragic dismantlement of rivers and fisheries.

The following three activities are causing major harm to rivers and fisheries, but would not occur in a true-cost, steady state economy.

Coal Ash Cesspools

The mining and burning of coal have come under enormous scrutiny because of the air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions they cause. There is another major but relatively unknown water pollution threat from coal burning, in addition to the smoke plume at the power plant–coal fly ash pits. After coal is burned at a power plant to generate electricity, the ash residue (which can contain serious toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) is dumped into unlined ponds or pits near the power plant. These toxic cesspools, as they should be called, cause contamination of surface water, well water, and adjacent lands.

In February of 2014, one of Duke Energy’s dozens of coal ash cesspools malfunctioned, sending toxic sludge 70 miles down the Dan River in North Carolina and into Virginia. Six years earlier (December, 2008) a coal ash cesspool operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke, sending even greater quantities of toxic water and sludge into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Independent testing of coal ash cesspools reveals a Pandora’s Box of toxins, findings that generally contradict assertions by utilities that things are okay. This growing issue amounts to a deadly in-your-face utility circus, flouting the law and flaunting the political power of utilities over state legislatures.

Utilities are doing what would never be allowed in a true-cost economy: they are externalizing the costs of dealing with fly ash from burning coal. Were they to include the health and pollution damages, the costs of coal would skyrocket and its use would be rapidly phased out.

Giant Dams

The economic evidence over the last 70 years against large dams has been assembled by economists at Oxford University (UK). They found, on average, large dam projects in developing countries exceed their construction cost budget by 90%, and often take over 10 years to complete.

Tonle Sap Lake Fish - Shankar S

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most fertile inland fisheries in the world, are facing threats from dams in the nearby Mekong River. Photo Credit: Shankar S

In addition, most mega-hydrodams omit genuine cost-accounting for their sometimes enormous adverse environmental and social impacts. For example, the public tends to think of hydroelectric power as a clean source of energy, not realizing that dams may be responsible for over 20% of the human-caused methane emissions. (Methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) In Asia, the Mekong River contains the world’s largest inland fishery and provides livelihood for an estimated 60 million people. Large dams are planned across the mainstem of the river that would destroy the fish migrations of more than 200 species. One proponent of these dams said, “don’t worry, the people can just buy their fish from a fish farm once the river fish disappear.”

Again, a true-cost economy does not condone the blatant failure to include all the costs. See my February 2015 blog “Crossroads on Global Infrastructure” for more details on large infrastructure projects.

River Engineering and Response to Weather Disasters

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey received about $60 billion in relief and assistance. Instead of avoiding more development in top hazard zones, a burst of building permit applications has been made for more activities in and on top of the Hudson River, all in a number one hazard zone. A lot of this real estate development on piers would harm crucial habitat for over 100 fish, plant, and animal species. The proposals include such reckless propositions as an amphitheater and trees on an artificial “island” in the river. This is not free-enterprise development, but subsidized activity that eventually will necessitate a taxpayer “emergency relief bill” following the next hurricane or superstorm. We will never reach a sustainable economy if we have to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars globally, bailing out new real estate development where it never should have been.

Real estate developments in and on top of rivers, armor-plating shorelines to enable more construction right on the coast, proliferating coal ash cesspools, and building mega-dams all have something in common. They can damage fishery habitats, disrupt fish migrations, and impair the healthy functioning of rivers in the US and worldwide. A true-cost economy recognizes that healthy rivers and flourishing fisheries are vital economic assets for cities and towns, and has principles that prevent their evisceration. The current globalized economy does not.

Crossroads on Global Infrastructure

Massive Global Infrastructure Projects Could Prevent Achievement of a Sustainable Economy While Undermining Life Support Systems of the Earth

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderPlans by the world’s most powerful countries are well underway to spend trillions of dollars for new mega-infrastructure projects to rejuvenate the global economy. The hope of the G-20 nations, the World Bank, China, and other powerful actors is that the infusion of several trillion dollars for infrastructure will boost the growth of GDP by 2.1% over current trends by 2018 and rescue a “sluggish” global economy.

The new feature of this approach to infrastructure involves expanded use of public money (taxes, pension funds, and aid) to offset the risks involved in huge projects. The approach also relies heavily on public-private partnerships, where the issue of accountability and failed projects has been a serious concern.

Those seeking a sustainable, true-cost, steady state economy should be alarmed at the new approach to global infrastructure because trillions of dollars spent on mega-projects in the energy, transportation, agriculture, and water sectors could put a sustainable, true cost economy further out of reach. Reviews of completed projects in these sectors have raised questions about corruption, cost overruns, fiscal accountability, human rights abuse, and the alarming destruction of natural resources.

Who are the Major Players?

The primary mover of a global infrastructure plan has been the G-20 nations (see here for the list of member countries). Afraid of being marginalized by the G-20, the World Bank has jumped into the scramble. In October of 2014, the World Bank launched a new Global Infrastructure Facility to reclaim the leadership on global infrastructure from the G-20. Just before the G-20 Summit last November, the World Bank and the IMF, along with seven multilateral development banks, issued a press release announcing their intention to provide $130 billion annually for infrastructure financing.

In 2014, China launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with 21 Asian countries as founding members, along with $100 billion in capital.

The Crossroads

A momentous choice is before us. On the one hand, the G-20, the World Bank, and other international lending institutions want more mega-highway projects, more centralized electric power plants and electricity grids, more mega-dams and gigantic irrigation schemes with huge water transfers, and the like.

On the other hand, an entirely new approach to infrastructure is possible. An approach that, for example, eschews big central electric power plants and relies more and more on decentralized wind and solar investments and avoids the horrendous mistakes made in the past in transportation, energy, water, and agriculture. Those interested in a true cost, steady state economy should advocate change in the massive new infrastructure lending so as to support projects that enable society to stay within the carrying capacity of planet earth. Such projects could lead the way toward a different type of global economy as they shift away from the business-as-usual approach in energy, transportation, water, and agriculture.

We know the impact of too many of these schemes is the destruction of ecosystems and undermining of the life support systems of the earth. They are pushed by the economic or finance ministries that have little understanding of the limits to growth, the significance of biodiversity, and the functioning of ecosystems that make life on earth possible. Environmental ministries are likely to have little influence in the choice of mega-projects.

There is not enough time to present the infrastructure investment choices in energy, agriculture, water, and transportation that would be made in a steady state economy, so I will mention a couple of examples in the transportation sector.

Freight Trucks - futureatlas dot com

We need infrastructure projects that don’t rely on highways at the expense of public transportation and rail. Photo Credit: futureatlas.com

Consider the unsustainability of the US transportation system that has focused almost entirely on highways to the neglect of passenger and freight rail and public transportation. The US is a poor transportation model for the world. Even with state and federal gasoline taxes, the revenues are insufficient to halt the massive deterioration of road and bridge networks, to say nothing of billions of dollars of backlog in deferred maintenance. The United States let passenger railroads go to hell and allowed the movement of more and more freight by trucks rather than trains (which are three to four times more energy efficient than trucks). This proved to be the wrong infrastructure choice.

Decades ago, some US bankers were questioning the viability of maintaining the infrastructure to support sprawling suburbs. A Bank of America report likened the servicing of sprawling suburbs to the nightmare that a military commander would face in trying to keep a 1,000-mile-long battlefront line supplied with food and ammunition.

Take a look, for example, at transportation required to supply our food. One study in Germany focused on a container of yogurt on a grocery store shelf where all of the ingredients were available locally, but in this case had traveled over 1,000 kilometers to reach the distribution center. A greater emphasis on local food production could result in dramatically reduced “food miles” and utilize a much smaller transportation network–an affordable network that could be maintained.

We are at a critical moment where two approaches to infrastructure are diverging. The infrastructure path of a true cost economy can lead to smaller-scale, smarter infrastructure and a healthier earth. The proposed path of the G-20 and World Bank, on the other hand, will replicate and intensify numerous unsustainable projects and cause human civilization to exceed the carrying capacity of the earth. Scientists point out that we are already consuming about one-and-a-half planets’ worth of resources. Infrastructure choices need to be made to alleviate rather than exacerbate this situation.

Note: For more information see the report by Nancy Alexander, “The Emerging Multi-Polar World Order: Its Unprecedented Consensus on a New Model for Financing Infrastructure Investment and Development,” Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Giant Mats of Green Slime in Lake Erie Signal a Need for New Economic Approaches to Pollution

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderFor the past 40 years, I have spent family summer vacations in Northern Michigan to enjoy a fresh water paradise of small lakes and rivers, along with the Great Lake Michigan.

Ghanbani, Slimeade

What does this have to do with economic growth? Photo Credit: Haraz N. Ghanbari of AP

This year, not all of the Great Lakes turned out to be great: Lake Erie was covered with massive algal mats at its western end, forcing the closure of Toledo’s water supply that serves 400,000 people. A sample of the intake water for Toledo looked like a glass of thick green slimeade.

So, what is the link between this latest water pollution debacle, economic growth, and a true-cost economy? I will argue that in a steady state, true-cost economy, there would be much less reliance on pollution regulations. The chief tool would be bans, along with significant harm charges, on those products and processes that threatened public health or jeopardized the functioning of life support systems for the earth.

What causes me to advocate such a major change in the U.S. approach to pollution can be seen in three big water pollution events this year. My CASSE blog in March dealt with two significant water pollution events earlier this year–the coal-processing spill that shut down the water supply to Charleston, West Virginia, and the bursting of a coal waste storage pond in North Carolina, sending toxic sludge 70 miles downstream in the Dan River.

In my March blog, I discussed better economic approaches to pollution that would be pursued in a true-cost, steady state economy.  Before going into these approaches, it is important to understand the huge frustration that the American public was experiencing in the 1960s from hundreds of water pollution incidents and the failure of governmental bodies to put a halt to this.

In the early 1970s, many of us worked to obtain the 1972 Clean Water Act that featured the promise of making waters of our nation fishable and swimmable by 1986. Two remarkable examples helped drive public awareness and force Congress to enact this law: the Cayahoga River catching on fire and Lake Erie becoming a dead lake.

If someone had told us that 40 years later Lake Erie would experience massive green slime algal mats, we would have said, “No thanks, we need a truly strong law that would bring back Lake Erie from the dead, not a law so permissive that four decades later we would have a monster slime blob in 2011 stretching 120 miles from Cleveland to Toledo, followed by yet another huge slime mass in 2014.”

So now we are confronted with the abysmal failures of the regulatory system at the state and federal level, along with the tepid responses to the latest pollution disaster in Lake Erie. The time has come to demand a change to our economic approaches to pollution and begin the transition to a true-cost, sustainable economy.

To get down to brass tacks on the Lake Erie green slime, we must recognize that the chief cause is agricultural runoff. According to Don Scavia, director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, “the primary driver is the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie from agriculturally dominated watersheds.” The state of Ohio reports that two thirds of the phosphorus comes from farm lands.

So let’s start calling for a national ban on gigantic animal factory farms with hundreds and hundreds of animals crowded together. Such factory slum operations would not occur in a steady state economy. They are a microcosm of what happens with too much growth in numbers and pollution. When any population of animals or people get into overly crowded conditions, pollution overwhelms the carrying capacity of the land and water, disease increases, and violence breaks out.  Today, industrial agriculture is increasing in size and adverse impacts, although organic farming is making inroads.

While pushing for bans, we should also demand harm charges for the damages bad agricultural practices have on lakes. Look at the cost of losing a city’s water supply, the health costs, and the costs to the recreation economy in the region. Today animal factory operations and industrial agriculture escape monetary responsibility for the many harms they cause.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) could require businesses to disclose their pollution externalities when they file their annual financial reports. The Dodd-Frank Act requires companies to disclose conflict minerals in their supply chains, thus setting a precedent for the SEC to act. Revelation of these pollution externalities would constitute the first step in forcing the creators to cover their true costs of production.

My argument runs counter to the major thrust taken to deal with air, land, and water pollution since Earth Day 1970, which was primarily a regulatory approach. Some of the pollution laws have worked quite well, providing crucial health benefits and safeguarding ecosystems, but many are not set to deal with the magnitude of the pollution issues of the 21st century. For example, powerful bee-killing pesticides are causing collapses of bee colonies nationwide. Such pesticides should be banned since they threaten human food supply, about two thirds of which depends on the pollinators. Other pesticides and herbicides kill vegetation relied upon by butterflies such as the monarch that needs milkweed to lay its eggs on.  Bans are possible. Several European countries banned the powerful herbicide atrazine in the early 1990s, but this poison is widely used in the United States despite substantial scientific evidence about its health impacts.

The response taken by environmental groups and official state and federal agencies to the grotesque pollution of Lake Erie has been primarily to call for better regulation, which leads to more bureaucratic procrastination and few results. No one has called for a ban on bad practices of industrial agriculture or called for a shutdown of the big, filthy animal feedlots that are a cesspool of pollution and disease. These should be outlawed! It is not impossible. The Michigan legislature did ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer.

The industrial agriculture system has grown so large in the United States that it is transgressing planetary boundaries, causing algal blooms and dead zones in lakes, bays, and estuaries. Certain parts of the economy, like those associated with industrial animal slums, need to shrink. Bans and harm charges must become frequently used economic tools.

Fresh Water, Growth, Degrowth, and the Steady State Economy

by Geoffrey Matthews

Geoffrey MatthewsIn Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, sustainable development is described as a process of change which meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and aspirations. To achieve this objective, the report suggests a series of goals that should underlie national and international action on development. In the authors’ opinion, the most important of these is “a production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development.”

The only way to do this is to manage economic growth or degrowth by the adoption of an economic policy where development may not exceed ecological limits–precisely the definition of the steady state economy proposed by CASSE.

However, in spite of initiatives by extraordinarily committed individuals, developments in ecological economics, and publications by Herman Daly and other members of CASSE, the traditional development process continues almost unchanged. This process fails to appropriately prioritize the social, economic, and environmental sectors to ensure that the growth of each does not occur at the expense of the others. Consequently, the conflicts between economic growth and the environment continue unabated, improvements to quality-of-life are slow and unsustainable, and poverty continues to erode the advances that have been made.

I believe one of the major reasons the concept of a steady state economy is not gaining traction is the omission of the role of fresh water in the production and maintenance of all its ecosystem and economic goods and services. The value of fresh water is that it sustains the life support system via the hydrological cycle. This cycle is the natural phenomenon whereby solar energy evaporates water from the surface of the planet to form clouds, and returns the water back to the planet’s surface in the form of rain, mist, and snow.

Matthews, Fig 1This diagram represents the availability of water in the economy and the environment. The quantity (Q) will vary over time (T) due to changes in the hydrological cycle, climate variations, and pollution. These variations in availability will always affect the scale of the economy and the ecosystem, because fresh water is required for every environmental and economic activity on this planet. To ensure a steady state economy, the supply of fresh water required to satisfy the ecosystem demand must be maintained at the expense of the economy’s demand for fresh water. Therefore, the scale of an economy and the services it produces are subservient to the availability of fresh water and the maintenance of the ecosystem services in its region. This means an economy can only grow within the dynamic hydrological envelope, and under the red supply line. As soon as its demand reaches the available supply, growth must stop, as in the below figure.

Matthews, Fig 2Indeed, some planning committees have made explicit the understanding that economic scale is subservient to fresh water availability–for example, the Town of Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. In 2002, Okotoks designed a Water Management Plan based on the limits of the environmental carrying capacity of the Sheep River and its watershed, gross water consumption of about 300 liters per capita per day, and an urban development policy that provided no allowance for extending utility services outside the town’s municipal boundary. However, in 2013, after consulting the citizens of Okotoks, the town decided to pursue urban growth by annexing adjacent land, but not at the expense of the water required to satisfy the Sheep River ecosystem demand. The present population of Okotoks is about 27,000, and the actual water supply will permit this population to grow until it reaches 35,000. Beyond this limit, additional water will be drawn from a regional water supply system via Calgary.

Conversely, in the case of a drought, when the hydrological envelope shrinks naturally, the economy must downsize or degrow, as in the below figure. No continent is immune to this natural phenomenon, and issues of food security often become the main concern. The degree of intensity and duration of droughts vary, so the amount of downsizing or degrowing will depend on the ability of the citizens and local/regional authorities to cope. Holistic water resources management and drought preparedness are key to the coping capacity of communities. There are no easy solutions because humanity cannot, and will never, control the behaviour of the hydrological cycle.

Matthews, Fig 3So what does this mean in terms of a “full world”? To date, we are accustomed to talking about a finite planet and ecological footprints in terms of the number of planets needed to support us. Although correct, many people cannot easily sense the impact of the deterioration of the life support systems, the loss of biodiversity, and the depletion of renewable and non-renewable natural resources on his or her quality of life because the process is relatively slow. Compare this to the change in the supply of fresh water due to the behaviour of the climate or pollution. This is a daily topic of conversation because fresh water is vital, and people’s reactions in terms of quality of life, finance, effects on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, farming, industry, population carrying capacity, etc. are always immediate. In other words, they already know that “their world” is defined by the finite amount of water and quality of water in their region.

As fresh water is an important “full world” parameter, I propose fresh water management be incorporated more fully into steady state policies and discussions with, for example, Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). IWRM, as defined by the Global Water Partnership, is a process that promotes the coordinated development and management of water, land, and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems.

Like the example of Okotoks above, Ecuador is aware that its water demand is reaching the limit of its resources, particularly due to increases in population from 2.8 million in 1950, to 14.7 million in 2013. To address this situation, the government began implementing IWRM and population management simultaneously. IWRM began on February 19, 2008, when the National Constitutional Assembly declared

The State should guarantee the preservation, conservation, protection, restoration, sustainable use and integrated management of watersheds, including necessary quality and quantity of ecological flows to sustain the integrity of all ecosystems associated with the hydrologic cycle, in order to safeguard the satisfaction of individual and collective human needs in function with societal health, including respecting the rights of nature and preserving biological diversity.

Population growth is being managed via free contraception, family planning, and education. As IWRM is designed to replace traditional top-down fragmented sector management with a bottom up cross-sector approach relying on cooperation, coordination, and population decrease, tangible results are not apparent at present. This will take time, perhaps a generation. While the dual policies of IWRM and population management have not been incorporated into a stated steady state economy objective, this is a very promising beginning.

Geoffrey Matthews is a water engineer, now living in France.

The Hidden Costs of Cheater Economics on Human Health & the Future of Life on Earth

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIn a true cost steady state economy, the real costs of goods and services would not be disguised, hidden, or kept off the accounting ledger. The former head of Friends of the Earth England, Tony Juniper, makes a significant contribution to the discussion of a true cost economy in his new book What Has Nature Ever Done For US? How Money Really Does Grow on Trees.

Cheater economics enables polluting products to be sold cheaper than many clean products. Cheater economics includes subsidies for fossil fuels, pesticides, and toxic chemicals. Cheater economics tolerates pollution externalities, as economists have noted. For example, many damages caused by air pollution from coal-fired power plants are not incorporated into the price of coal but simply borne by the victims. The act of mountain top mining eliminates forests and streams while air pollution from burning coal results in loss of crops, damage to buildings, health problems, and mercury contamination of fisheries, etc.

Here is a sample of the astonishing set of ecological costs stemming from economic activities that damage or rearrange ecosystems that are presented in What Has Nature Ever Done For US?

Vultures in India

Photo Credit:  Nagarjun Kandukuru

Perching vulture in India. Photo Credit: Nagarjun Kandukuru

India has almost lost its total population of 40 million vultures as a result of anti-inflammatory drugs injected into cattle and water buffalo. The vultures consumed the carcasses of these and other dead creatures and accumulated a fatal dosage. Now 12 million tonnes of animal flesh that vultures consumed annually is left rotting, fed upon by growing packs of dogs that have caused a massive outbreak of rabies among the human population. The annual medical costs exceed $30 billion as a result of the demise of the vulture population, which had previously provided free of charge essential garbage/carrion collection services.

Pollinators of Human Food Crops

About two thirds of the world’s food crops require animal pollination and one trillion dollars of the $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural products are dependent on animal pollinators such as honey bees and bumblebees. Certain pesticides are killing off these crucial pollinators. In the 1980s, extensive use of pesticides in part of Sichuan, China, eliminated the bee pollinators. Today in this region, about 40,000 people now have to pollinate apple and pear trees by hand.

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that in 146 countries, 90% of the food supply is provided by 100 crops. What is significant is that 71 of these 100 crops are pollinated primarily by wild bees. These crops include squashes, cherries, plums, cucumbers, strawberries, and pears.

Destruction of Ocean Fisheries via Subsidies

Ocean fisheries contribute $274 billion for global GDP but various countries provide $16 billion in subsidizing fishery harvesting practices that are highly damaging to fish stocks: i.e., the equivalent of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Photo Credit: Jim Winstead

Mangrove in Thailand. Photo Credit: Jim Winstead

Mangrove Forest Loss & Coastal Flooding

One square kilometer of mangrove forest is worth between $200,000 and $900,000 annually. Destruction of coastal mangrove forests, as occurs with Asian shrimp farms, eliminates the storm protection barrier that is increasingly important in the face of sea level rise.

High Health Care Costs as Result of Destroying Natural Areas

To deal with the poor health of people in the polluted Gateshead area in Northeast England, a group of British public agencies in 2004 initiated a program of walks in a 360 hectare mixed forest zone. Tony Juniper reports that these walks were very effective in improving patients’ health and were far superior to the alternative of exercise in a gymnasium.

A growing body of evidence points to the health benefits from interactions with nature. Dr. William Bird, a British doctor, ran a diabetic clinic in the 1990s in Oxfordshire where he initiated a very successful program of health walks in natural areas. But the sad fact is that natural areas are declining in many urban areas. In Sheffield, England, the “roaming” range for children has declined over 5 generations from six miles when the great-grandparents were children to about 300 yards today for children. The health costs of destroying natural areas globally is simply a pollution externality for developers and extractors and is shoved off on the public.

Pharmaceuticals & the Loss of Tropical Rainforests

Experts estimate that between a quarter and a half of the $640 billion global pharmaceutical market is based on natural genetic diversity. Tropical rainforests contain a significant portion of the genetic diversity on earth, but despite the grave concerns about deforestation, an area the size of Germany or Montana was lost between 2000 and 2013.

To establish a true cost economy, we must get the ecological price right on products and services. The examples presented in Juniper’s book illustrate the extraordinarily large benefits provided by nature but neglected in today’s economic accounting. These compelling illustrations can be of great benefit in pushing toward a paradigm shift in current mainstream economic thinking. They are straightforward matter-of-fact descriptions of externalities that are undermining the life-support ecosystems of the Earth.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should be requiring companies to disclose their pollution externalities annually so as to alert investors and the public to the true cost of their products. However, not only will a steady state economy depend on accounting for these costs and putting an end to cheater economics, but will also depend on changing our macroeconomic policy goal of continuous growth. Only then can we begin to stop the destruction of our planet and ensure our health and the environment are protected for generations to come.

The One Percent: Not Kristallnacht but Lebensraum

By Brian Czech

BrianCzechRemember Tom Perkins? Probably nobody wants to, but with all the talk about the profligacy of the one percent, Perkins comes iconically to mind. He’s the billionaire who nauseated the ninety-nine percent by suggesting that American “progressive” (his word) thinking was tilting toward Kristallnacht, due to an attitude toward the one percent. As if he and his capitalist captain cronies were innocent street-corner merchants and the rest of us jack-booted Nazis. What a way to win friends and influence people!

If we’re going to use World War II analogies, let’s at least use the correct one.  In this case it’s not Kristallnacht, but Lebensraum. And the one percent would be the perpetrators, not the victims.

Recall that the pursuit of Lebensraum — living space — was Hitler’s stated excuse for invading Poland, the beginning of World War II. It’s a doctrine to be ever wary of, and it might not always be as explicit as Hitler made it. (The relevance to Putin and Ukraine, for example, is left for others to speculate on.)

To understand the logic of Lebensraum, we need a quick review of structural economics. The economy has three basic sectors: agricultural/extractive, manufacturing, and services. (The “financial sector” is fairly distinct, but falls within the general category of services.) It seems like this basic structure ought to be conventional wisdom, but in the age of the Internet, economic wisdom is disappearing by the bitcoin. If we’re not careful we’ll end up like King Midas, a foolish one percenter if there ever was one.

TL Most Basic With Caption III

The three basic sectors of the human economy, with agriculture/extraction lumped together as “producers” of food, energy, and raw materials.


Every economy on the planet — and every political state — depends on its agricultural and extractive base for everything else. It doesn’t matter where the agricultural base is situated, or who controls it. Whether it’s the financial sectors of Hong Kong, the ecotourism of Costa Rica, or the State of Rhode Island, it’s agricultural and extractive surplus, coming from somewhere, that frees the hands of society for the division of labor. Adam Smith noted as much in Wealth of Nations. It’s the stuff of statecraft. Thomas Jefferson knew all about it.



TL with Arrows with Caption

The basic sectors re-arranged as trophic levels. Strictly speaking, the producers (farmers and extractors) and manufacturing sectors (from heaviest to lightest) are true trophic levels. Service sectors operate throughout the trophic structure, much like pollinators, scavengers, and decomposers operate in the “economy of nature.”

The basic economic sectors amount to the “trophic levels” of economic activity, to borrow a term from ecology. It’s a term worth borrowing, too, given that ecology is all about the “economy of nature.” A little ecology goes a long way toward understanding the plight of Homo sapiens in the 21st century. Humans are stuck with the same physical and biological laws that operate in the economy of nature.  There’s no making something from nothing — Lebensraum for example — and no waving a magic wand to make all the competitors disappear. Guns and bombs are not magic wands.

Of course we all know that the American economy has a lot more than the basic farms, factories, and financial firms. For example there are some really fancy watches, 289-foot yachts, and even personal submarines. You know, the kind of stuff Tom Perkins has to have. Well, with plenty of agricultural and extractive surplus at the base, there’s enough money left over in society for such luxuries, at least for those who commandeer a high enough percentage of the money.

Note that word “money” in the context of trophic levels. This is the “trophic theory of money” — more and more real money (adjusted for inflation, technological progress, and purchasing power) requires more and more agricultural and extractive activity at the base of the economy.  In other words more and more money takes more and more resources.  It takes more… Lebensraum.

Now who among us contributes most to the pressure for Lebensraum? (Hint: It’s easy to tell with the trophic theory of money.) All else equal, it’s those who require and spend the most money, because the amount of money indicates the level of agricultural and extractive surplus that had to be issued from the base of the economy.

The point here seems even more obvious when the expenditure is on luxury material goods, say for example “your typical football field size yacht,” as Perkins referred to his “Maltese Falcon.” The point is more nuanced when it comes to spending hundreds of millions on, say, derivatives in Hong Kong or ecotourism in Costa Rica. But whether the millions are spent on nuts, bolts, or pure nonsense, the origination of the money required Lebensraum at the base.

Pressure for Leb With Caption

Unsustainable consumption of the one percent and pressure for Lebensraum. Note how disproportionate the extremely luxurious goods and services are. The alarming disproportionality indicates how the base of the economy must grow outward to support the acquisition of such goods and services. In other words, if agriculture and extraction is at full capacity within the borders, the nation must commandeer Lebensraum to support the luxurious consumption (Photo Credit: Greg Covey.)

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, George H. W. Bush said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” The problem with that attitude is the American way of life, taken as a whole, includes an unhealthy dose of Perkins-like consumption. If that’s not up for negotiation, war is a matter of time.

And please, don’t tell us the real onus is on the 99%. Obviously every bit of conservation helps, but how much do you spend in a year? Somewhere between $20,000 and $60,000? That means a guy like Perkins or Trump or Schwarzman spends not 10 times as much as you, not 100, but more like a thousand or even 10,000 times as much. That requires a helluva lot more Lebensraum! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that should be part of the American way.

This is not to say the one percent is guilty of conspiring to precipitate a war for Lebensraum. It’s hard to imagine the Donald, for example, having any type of geopolitical strategy. And if there is one thing I have learned as a visiting professor of natural resource economics, it’s just how deeply misinformed people are about the trophic origins of money. Our society, political system, and even academia abound with fuzzy notions of “dematerializing” the economy and “green growth.” It would be hard to blame the one percent for an ignorance of ecological economics.

On the other hand, somewhere around 99% of us, if stopped for violating a relatively obscure statute or regulation, will be told, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” In this case we are talking about natural law; the physics and biology establishing the trophic structure of the economy.  A guy like Perkins is supposed to be a cut above the rest; a brilliant captain of industry, high-tech industry no less. Shouldn’t we expect more acumen with regard to the functioning of the economy he has supposedly mastered?

Frankly, I’m not so sure Perkins is blissfully ignorant after all.  His 60 Minutes interview suggested he knows something is wrong with the gaudy expenditures on yachts and moats and such.  In fact, he was too embarrassed to say how much he spent on the Maltese Falcon because he admitted the money could have been used for far more beneficial and charitable purposes.  Yet he just can’t control the urge to have the biggest and most expensive toys, largely to stroke his ego, he admits.

Now in America there are other behaviors, stemming from supposedly uncontrollable urges, that wreak havoc in society. These behaviors are not only frowned upon but punishable by law. Why are there no deterrents to reckless levels of consumption?

It bears repeating that pushing for perpetually more stuff — especially luxury goods and services, the biggest, best, and most expensive — is tantamount to Lebensraum doctrine. It may not be intentional, but it’s basic economics. And bad economics.

What to Do When You Suspect We’re Headed for Collapse

by Rob Dietz

Dietz_Author_PhotoIf you’ve been paying attention to the environmental news, then you know people are pummeling the planet. Because of the way we run the economy, with continuously growing population and consumption, we are destabilizing the climate, depleting topsoil, drawing down aquifers, acidifying the oceans, and driving species to extinction. Even as we impoverish the Earth’s ecosystems, billions of us struggle daily to find enough food for a decent dinner.  In this age of worldwide environmental and social turmoil, it’s natural to want to help. It’s also natural to wonder how you can possibly make a difference. These troubled times prompt each of us to ask a simple, but absolutely critical question: “What should I do?”

Before tackling what to do, let’s get something out of the way — what not to do:

  • Deny the severity of the problems. Suppose you go swimming along a beach and notice an agitated 20-foot-long great white shark swimming directly below you. No matter how much you refuse to acknowledge its existence, the shark will still be there, cruising along and considering whether you’d make a satisfying snack. You are more likely to survive if you assess your situation accurately and react to your new reality. (The chances of actually meeting a great white shark are slim because of overexploitation — just like humanity’s relationship with so many species, but that’s another story).
  • Refuse to take responsibility. Too many people deny not only the severity of the problems, but even the very existence of the problems. A disconcerting number of climate change denialists (perhaps better termed de-nihilists) live in virtual bomb shelters they constructed to avoid having to confront reality. It’s up to the rest of us — those who live in the real world and understand the severity of humanity’s plight — to take responsibility. We have to move with purpose and we have to move now.
  • Stick with the status quo. As environmental scientists continue to overload us with sobering findings, the easiest thing to do is to keep walking the business-as-usual path. There’s a certain solace to having a “normal” career, carrying on without making sacrifices or changing behavior in ways that may cause difficulty and even pain. As social creatures, we are pre-programmed to conform to the dominant culture. But the difficulty of taking a countercultural path pales in comparison to the chronic difficulties you’ll experience if your way of life contradicts your core beliefs.
  • Leave it to a higher power. Calling on a spiritual or technological force to save the day offers a soothing strategy for escaping from our environmental and social traps, but it’s also an unconscionably irresponsible strategy. People have good reasons to believe God or Google can deliver some amount of help, but that doesn’t absolve us from doing our part. We got ourselves into this mess — we must look to ourselves to find a way out.

Back to the central question: “What should I do?” Like a flock of vultures, the problems circle ominously overhead. The solutions are more like songbirds; they hide in branches and thickets, but they’re there. Despite their presence all around us, it’s still hard to spot proper solutions. It would be a huge relief to have one simple method for scuttling the vultures, but it just doesn’t exist. Solutions come with a certain degree of complexity (e.g., multiple partial solutions that are related to one another). To begin piecing together your answer to “What should I do,” then, it’s helpful to divide actions into three categories: (1) learn something, (2) say something, and (3) do something.

Learn Something

Seek out colleagues who also recognize the problems, but especially people working on creative solutions. I have found myself in the most amazing, life-enriching company while trying to learn more about how to build a sustainable and fair economy. Listing the scholars and leaders who have taught me how to think in systems and see the world through an ecological lens seems like an ill-advised exercise; I know I would omit someone, and I would feel like a name dropper. But when I think about people I’ve met on my quest to learn something, I feel so fortunate (here’s a short list of heroic “Bills”: Bill McKibben, Bill Rees, Bill Ryerson, and Bill Twist).  I’m thankful to all my colleagues, even those not named Bill!

The upshot: you don’t have to slog your way through boring tomes in the dusty corners of the library. On the contrary, you can engage with some of the most compassionate and insightful people on the planet, just as long as you share their desire to help, and you commit to learning something.

Say Something

"Keep Consuming" Poster by Adbusters

As the writers and artists at Adbusters effectively demonstrate, there are always opportunities to speak up and ask, “Why?”

Saying something (at least saying something intelligent) is tougher than learning something, especially for us introverts. My method of saying something consists mostly of writing. I co-wrote a book. I wrote articles (for example, this one in USA Today). I wrote Daly News essays. It’s easier for me to say something clear with a pen or keyboard than with my vocal chords (although I occasionally work up the courage to stand in front of a live audience and pass along what I’ve learned).

If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you’ll find opportunities to say something, and it doesn’t have to be on some grand stage. If you’re a student, ask your professors and classmates probing questions:

Why does the economy have to keep growing? How much consumption is enough for a person, a community, or a society? What are the ultimate goals of our economy?

If you read news reports, write comments and send letters to the editor. A continuous procession of articles in praise of continuous economic growth marches across the front pages of mainstream media sources, providing ample opportunities to respond.

If you participate in a book club, try Enough Is Enough or something similar. Where my coauthor, Dan O’Neill, lives in Leeds, UK, a dedicated group of activists is strategizing how to build the kind of economy described in the book. The same thing has happened where I live in Corvallis, Oregon, and we’ve heard about other groups forming in Bermuda and Wisconsin. Changes begin with the simple act of discussing and sharing ideas. We can all engage our families and friends — you never know what positive events will emerges from your conversations.

Do Something

Doing something represents another step up in commitment. In choosing what to do, the most important point is to make your behavior match your knowledge and values. For example, you can reduce consumption, especially fossil fuel. You can engage in acts of protest. You can give your time and money to organizations that are championing causes dear to you. I have chosen to live with my family in an aspiring ecovillage. We do our best to support the local economy and disengage from the unsustainable, cost-externalizing, globalized economy. We ride bikes. We make music. The idea is to spend time fostering needed changes and have fun doing it.

It’s in that spirit that I embark on my next career adventure. I’ve said enough for the moment as the editor of the Daly News. To understand the motive behind my move, consider this quote from Buckminster Fuller:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

I am excited to be helping Farmland LP build a better agricultural model. We are out to prove that organic, ecologically sound farming practices outperform the outdated model we have been saddled with. The old model, based on 19th- and 20th-century ideas of industrial production, offers no future. In the new model, we manage farmland as an ecosystem — not a mine from which we extract and deplete resources. Farmland LP, founded by Jason Bradford and Craig Wichner, is doing something simple, elegant, and brilliant. The company raises money to buy conventional farmland and convert it to organic. The point is to bolster regional food systems, improve environmental conditions, create meaningful jobs, and provide investors with a good place to put their money. In a sense, we are performing an aikido move. We’re using the momentum of current financial and business systems to create a better way of managing landscapes and providing sustenance. I’m proud to play a role.

I’m also proud of my work on the Daly News. I’ve done my best to move the conversation along, and I look forward to learning more as CASSE continues to curate this forum. I’m engaged in a lifelong journey of learning something, saying something, and doing something. I hope you are too and that you’re bringing friends along. It’s not easy, but you’ll never regret doing what needs to be done. Onward!

Biocultural Heritage: The Foundation of a Sustainable Economy

by Claudia Múnera

Claudia_MuneraPorta Palazzo in the city of Turin, Italy, is recognized as the largest open air market in Europe. Visiting this market provides a unique experience: vendors in all directions offer a seemingly endless supply of breads, pastas, meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, herbs, and olives. The kaleidoscope of colors and jumble of aromas threaten to overload the senses. Italians and foreigners alike gather here to find the foods they want – whether it’s a local ingredient for a traditional Italian dish or something exotic to summon the tastes of a faraway home.

Even though there’s such diversity, all the foods at Porta Palazzo share something in common. You can trace each type of food to a particular ecosystem and a particular way of life for the people who inhabit (or once inhabited) that ecosystem. Each food product in the market comes with its own biocultural heritage. Among all the products we buy and sell in today’s economy, food is probably the easiest to connect to biocultural heritage (assuming we’re not talking about a pre-packaged, frozen microwave dinner). For instance Colombians crave bocadillo veleños, the traditional confection made from guava and sugarcane. And Salvadorians keep an eye out for pupusas, which are made from a cornmeal dough that redefines the phrase “comfort food.” When living abroad, people from a given region often organize festivals in which traditional foods play a central role.

Biocultural heritage wraps a lot of concepts into one term. It’s about relationships between people and the natural environment. It consists of biological resources, from genes to landscapes. But biological heritage also consists of human history, from practices to pools of knowledge and the way humans shape their surroundings and vice versa. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, some 370 million indigenous people in the world depend directly on natural resources — they rely on their biocultural heritage for survival. Biocultural heritage also influences religious beliefs, sense of place (especially sacred places), and sense of self. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tangle of connections when considering the biocultural heritage of a good or a service — maybe that’s why food is a good place to start when trying to get a feel for it. But an astute observer can recognize that other goods and services, such as medicinal plants, tourism, or even health services, also flow from a rich biocultural heritage.

Scenes from Porta Palazza

Colorful vegetables, colorful meats, and even more colorful characters make up the scene at Porta Palazza (photo credit: Claudia Munera).

Throughout my career, it has become increasingly clear that conservation of biocultural heritage is the long-term key to maintaining both healthy ecosystems and healthy economies. As a conservation biologist, I could probably be accused of having a biased viewpoint — I have always believed that endangered species, tracts of wilderness, and other aspects of biodiversity are intrinsically valuable and worthy of conservation. As a result, I have spent a lot of time and effort on projects aimed at protecting ecosystems and the species they contain. I believe that maintaining parks and protected areas is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not enough. Drawing boundaries around biodiversity hotspots or cherished scenic areas will fail in the face of ongoing exponential economic growth and mounting pressure to turn protected areas into commodities.

My research on biocultural heritage at the Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve in southeastern Nicaragua aims to illustrate the point. Nicaragua is changing at a fast pace, trying to follow a European or North American model of economic growth at the expense of its rich natural capital. Deforestation is on the rise with forest cover diminishing from 42,340 square kilometers in 1994 to 30,440 in 2011. There are several causes, but the main one is to meet the demands of markets: cattle for dairy and meat, hardwood lumber, and crops such as palm oil, sugarcane, and peanuts. In short, forests are being transformed into commodity landscapes.

Poster for Chocolate Tours

Biocultural services: chocolate tours in Rio San Juan Biosphere Reserve (photo credit: Claudia Munera).

The intense pressure applied by economic growth is threatening flagship species such as the jaguar and tapir, internationally significant wetlands, and the species-rich (not to mention carbon-sequestering) forests of this region in Nicaragua. In light of such pressure, the best way to conserve the natural areas is to recognize the value of the biocultural heritage of these areas. Local communities and indigenous populations are making a living and thriving by growing traditional crops, creating handcrafts, and preparing traditional foods that are founded on the local environment and framed in Nicaraguan history and culture. Several communities are embracing ecotourism (it’s a lot easier to entice a tourist to visit the Rio San Juan, Bosawas, or Ometepe Biosphere Reserves if they haven’t been converted to palm oil plantations or cattle farms). Farmers are also having a go at organic cocoa production. A certain amount and certain types of economic activity are compatible with the natural resources of the region, but if we fail to conserve the biocultural heritage of the region, the natural resources will eventually become commodities in economic activities that are incompatible with the landscape.

Other places around the world also demonstrate how championing biocultural heritage can produce desirable results for people and ecosystems. For example, the provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan, China, contain rice terraces, mountain agriculture, and forests that have provided people with livelihoods for centuries. During the last three years, however, droughts have threatened the economy and local food security. Farmers have relied on their biocultural heritage to cope — planting traditional drought-resistant maize varieties and raising ducks in the rice fields as a pest control strategy. Farmers have accrued health benefits by eliminating pesticides and earned profits by selling their products in niche organic markets.

In Tuscany, Italy, the landscape has been shaped and preserved by centuries of human influence, but in recent times, the people have been engineering the landscape into a homogenized agricultural landscape of mechanized monocultures with no consideration of traditional farming and forestry practices. Consequences include biodiversity loss, erosion, and deteriorating quality of life for residents who have strong ties to their landscape. According to UNESCO, “Cultural landscapes originated by human action, as well as biodiversity connected to them, can only be maintained by preserving local cultural heritage. Abandonment of traditional practices can lead to reduction of landscape diversity with impacts on biodiversity, economy, and quality of life of rural communities. To overcome these problems, parts of the landscape have been included in the World Heritage Sites list (Medici Villas and Gardens). At the same time, ecological restoration of agricultural and natural areas has spurred tourism, revitalized local foods production, and led to the creation of markets for locally grown food that help preserve Tuscan culture.

Protecting the biosphere comes down to making sure enough ecosystems around the globe maintain their structures and functions. A strong appreciation of biocultural heritage is a key to doing this job, especially in the face of pressures from ongoing economic growth. Local economies in which people maintain a sense of place and a sense of their ecological and cultural limits provide an alternative, resilient model to the infinite growth paradigm.

Claudia Múnera is a conservation biologist and the director of CASSE’s Colombia Chapter.