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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.

Occupy the G-8

by Brent Blackwelder

This is the text of an address delivered by Brent Blackwelder to the Occupy Movement, in Frederick, Maryland, May 18, 2012 on the occasion of the annual meeting of the G-8 at Camp David.

Terrible economic times are facing billions of people worldwide. Where are the jobs? Roughly half of new college graduates in the U.S. cannot find work. Who’s getting all the money? The gap is widening between the one percent and the 99 percent.

At the same time, the world’s oceans are being devastated by overfishing, forests are being obliterated, mountains are being blown apart to get at the coal, and rivers around the world are being dammed, diverted, and drained of their water. A quarter of the species on the planet are headed toward extinction. Compounding these effects, the earth’s climate is being destabilized by emissions of greenhouse gases.

Driving this fiasco are casino economics, cheater economics, and futureless economics. It’s not a pretty picture. Why can’t we do better? What can we do about it? Are the powerful leaders of the G-8 nations gathered here going to provide the solutions?

If the past record of the G-8 is any guide, promises will be made, the World Bank will be assigned the role of savior, but monetary pledges won’t be fulfilled, and nothing major will happen to shift the status quo.

I propose to you today a bold paradigm shift in our economy — away from the futureless economics, away from the casino economics, and away from the cheater economics that run the global economy. We need an economics for the earth, its people, and all the life on this planet.

I suggest that the Occupy Movement could bring about an economic paradigm shift by adopting the steady state economy as its macroeconomic policy goal. That means an economy with stabilized levels of production and consumption, which means stabilizing population and per-person consumption. It means an economy that operates within the carrying capacity of the Earth and does not threaten present and future generations with its overbearing, bloating size.

Cheater Economics, Casino Economics, Futureless Economics

The global economy treats natural resources as if the Earth were a business in a liquidation sale. The global economic system of today is undermining the life-support systems of our planet.

One major shortcoming of capitalism is that it does not reveal the real ecological costs of commercial products. Furthermore, today’s capitalism allows corporations to externalize the damaging health and environmental costs of their activities. Today’s capitalism also tolerates massive taxpayer handouts to highly polluting corporations.

In the Casino Economy billions in profits are made without providing any goods or services — they are made with complex financial instruments sometimes referred to as derivatives. Complex financial instruments enable the avoidance of taxes. The financial sector in today’s U.S. economy is now about three times as large as the manufacturing sector.

In the aftermath of the big bank bailouts and the passage of the Dodd-Frank law to curtail high-risk lending, JP Morgan Chase recently announced a loss of $2 billion from its risky trading (now the bank says it’s over $3 billion). Hand-in-hand with cheater economics, many huge corporations put their profits in offshore tax havens and escape paying an estimated $100 billion to the U.S. Treasury.

In current economic practice, corporations are evaluated on their quarterly returns. There is little long-range thinking. Mainstream economists tell us 100 years from now is not worth worrying about. (One dollar a century from now is only worth pennies today.)  But such thinking runs counter to the values of most people. Parents are concerned about what kind of world their children and grandchildren will live in.

Futureless economics, casino economics, and cheater economics have no place in a steady state economy. But here are some examples of the damage they cause in the current economic sectors of energy extraction, agriculture, mining, and forestry.

1) Fossil fuels. Extractive industries are going to the most remote and riskiest places, such as the Arctic Ocean, to obtain oil. Uncleanable spills will be the inevitable result. Some of the most biologically diverse regions, such as the tropical rainforests, are being decimated by oil drilling. Oil and gas companies are extracting the dirtiest of fuels, such as tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Coal companies are using techniques like mountain-top removal to get at the coal in West Virginia. In the process they are creating a Martian landscape by obliterating the forested green mountains and destroying the entire hydrologic cycle.

Most extractive industries enjoy substantial handouts from governments. The U.S. is set to provide $110 billion over the next decade to the oil and coal industries. That’s right — some of the world’s richest companies enjoy taxpayer handouts, and some do not even pay income tax.

The health and environmental costs of oil extraction in places like Nigeria over the last 50 years are huge, but oil and gas companies like Shell have not cleaned up the more than 5,000 spills that have wrecked fisheries, polluted drinking water, and harmed the health of local people who have borne the brunt of the contamination.

2) Agricultural lands. Powerful agribusiness giants like Monsanto are trying to patent all seeds and control agriculture from top to bottom. Major meat companies like Smithfield operate gigantic animal factory slums that cause serious water pollution and load the air with noxious fumes that harm people’s health and displace local family farms.  As with fossil fuels, governments subsidize the polluters. Time Magazine showed that some of the biggest animal factory farms receive all sorts of handouts from state and local governments.

3) Forests: the world’s forests are rapidly being destroyed. The U.S. has set a horrible example going back to the 1800s when, for example, the state of Michigan was almost totally deforested. Instead of creating sustainable logging operations for the state, the timber industry abandoned Michigan and kept moving west. After seeing some of the horrendous logging along the West Coast, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “I hope the bastards who did this are roasting in Hell.”

The U.S. Forest Service is notorious for providing “below cost timber” sales in our National Forests. Corruption and bribery characterize logging operations around the world.

Friends of the Earth England and Friends of the Earth Ghana combined efforts to show that lumber in Ghana was being extracted, but taxes were not being paid on the real volume of timber being cut.

4) Minerals. Leonardo DiCaprio’s film Blood Diamond illustrates a typical problem with mining operations that seek gold, copper, diamonds, and other minerals. The use of cyanide to extract gold causes major pollution all over the world. The mining lobby in the U.S. has been so strong that the 1872 Mining Law and its subsidies have not been changed. The “pollute-and-run” practices of the past continue today on steroids.  As with oil, coal, and gas extraction, the damages to health, crops, and the air, land, and water are externalized on the public.

Elements of an Economics for the Earth: A Steady State Economy

There is no magic formula that can move the world to a sustainable, steady state economy. However, by pursuing any of the following actions, countries and localities can move in the right direction and set the stage for a paradigm shift to occur.

1) Get rid of polluter subsidies.  Give subsidies only to clean energy; no more subsidies for fossil fuels, agribusiness, and the like. About half the states exempt pesticides from their sales tax. Senator Sanders (I-VT) and Congressman Ellison (D-MN) have introduced legislation to eliminate all subsidies to the fossil fuel industry — a measure that would save $110 billion over the next decade.

2) Shift to a clean-energy basis for the global economy. It is technically feasible to run the global economy on a carbon-free and nuclear-free basis. Amory Lovins has a new eloquent description of his plan. Arjun Makhijani in Carbon Free, Nuclear Free provides another. California physicists Jacobson and Delucchi offer a slightly different plan in Scientific American (Nov, 2009) as does Lester Brown in World on the Edge.

3) Adopt the measures proposed by Senator Levin on tax dodging. Senator Levin (D-Michigan) is chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Investigation Subcommittee and has exposed a wide range of scandalous tax-dodging activities by corporations in American that deprive the Treasury of over $100 billion annually. A miniscule tax on global financial transactions and on currency transactions would yield hundreds of billions, while forcing players in the casino economy to pay at least something.

4) Change the indicators. The gross domestic product (GDP) is taken as a measure of society’s well-being, but in reality it measures how fast a nation is converting its natural resources into waste. It fails to account for the depletion of natural resources. Some states, including Maryland, have adopted the genuine progress indicator. And Bhutan has adopted Gross National Happiness as a better measure of well-being.

5) Restructure jobs. Adopting a four-day workweek can help reduce unemployment, spread the work, and provide time for people to spend with their families. The clean energy strategies described above would provide vastly more jobs per dollar than the fossil fuel industry. These jobs can materialize from dispersed renewable energy projects while our energy dollars remain in the community.

6. Support local investing. Michael Shuman’s new book Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street provides evidence that local investment does better than Wall Street stock purchases. The book presents a variety of examples of opportunities for investing in local businesses, local banks, and local exchanges. About two dozen studies have shown that such local spending and investments can provide several times as many jobs compared to investments in nationwide business. For example, for every $100 spent in a national book chain about $13 would remain in the local economy, whereas with $100 spent at a local bookstore, about $45 would remain.

Is a steady state economy just an idle utopian dream? Tim Jackson’s report, Prosperity Without Growth, prepared for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, provides a detailed discussion that makes a convincing case. Canadian economist Peter Victor has shown how the transition to a new economy can be accomplished in such a way that per capita income increases, unemployment declines, and poverty decreases.

In a world where propaganda and big money have undermined governance and the media, the Occupy Movement has a vital role to play by confronting decision makers, protesting polluting corporations, calling for an economic paradigm shift, and giving visibility to the paths for a healthier future.

Deceptionomics

by Brent Blackwelder

This March, at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC, I saw a documentary on the destruction of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, once the world’s fourth-largest inland lake. Soviet planners and decision makers fifty years ago decided to divert the two main tributary rivers of the Aral to grow cotton. Starved of fresh water inflows, the Aral Sea has shrunk to half its original surface area and lost 75% of its volume.

The productive fishery was wiped out, salinity levels in the lake tripled, and the water has been poisoned with pesticides. I wondered what kind of deceptive economic calculations were used to justify destroying one of the natural wonders of the world.

I recently argued that today’s global marketplace is characterized by cheater economics — a corporate welfare system that has no part in a sustainable, steady state economy. There’s another type of economics that’s also in wide use today. It’s not quite as “in-your-face” as cheater economics, but it’s just as harmful because of the way it distorts reality. Deceptionomics uses “fool-you” accounting to omit genuine costs and misrepresent the true benefits and costs of economic transactions.

Robert Trivers’s new book The Folly of Fools examines the role of self-deception in human life. The animal kingdom is full of examples of deception by both predator and prey. For example, over 100 varieties of insects look like innocent twigs but consume other types of insects that unsuspectingly come close. Trivers applies his analysis of self-deception to the economics profession. Economics, he contends, is not yet a science because it fails to ground itself in underlying knowledge, namely biology. He writes:

…when a science is a pretend science rather than the real thing, it falls into sloppy and biased systems for evaluating the truth… [M]odels of economic activity must inevitably be based on some notion of what an individual organism is up to. What are we trying to maximize?

Here economists play a shell game, he notes, as they tell us that people attempt to maximize “utility.” However, when asked what constitutes utility, they reply, “Anything people wish to maximize.” How’s that for circular logic? Sometimes a person will try to maximize income, sometimes food, and sometimes sex over both food and income. So now we need “preference functions” to sort out all the competing preferences in an attempt to maximize utility, but, as Trivers points out, “economics by itself can provide no theory for how the organism is expected to rank these variables.”

Another big mistake by economists is the conflation of two senses of utility — the utility of your actions to yourself, and the utility of your actions to others. Most economists view these two kinds of utility as being aligned. Trivers says that economists “often argue that individuals acting for personal utility will tend to benefit the group.” Thus, they “tend to be blind to the possibility that unrestrained pursuit of personal utility can have disastrous effects on group benefit.” Trivers observes that economists assume (contrary to direct experience and biological evidence) that “market forces will naturally constrain the cost of deception in social and economic systems.” He notes with astonishment that “such is the detachment of this ‘science’ from reality that these contradictions arouse notice only when the entire world is hurtling into an economic depression based on corporate greed wedded to false economic theory.”

In a steady state economy, we would seek to minimize deceptive practices. We would not delude ourselves with the ruse that GDP captures the essence of well-being. Nor would we have separate moralities for business and community. We teach our kids not to squander their allowance and to save some for the future. In family and community settings, people care about the long term and consider what kind of world our children and grandchildren will live in. But in business circles, all attention is riveted on quarterly returns. Economists employ a discount rate in their calculations that values the future 100 years from now as being worth almost nothing.

The truly deceptive nature of our current economic system can be seen by looking at the big debate over oil prices and the attempt to blame President Obama for the high price of gasoline. Meanwhile candidate Newt Gingrich proclaims on national TV that he has a plan for $2.50-a-gallon gasoline. But even at $4.00 per gallon, the price of gasoline is deceptively low.

Every day the U.S. is spending approximately $2 billion buying gasoline. What is remarkable and not disclosed to the public, writes Amory Lovins in his new article in Foreign Affairs, is the $4 billion in losses stemming “from the macroeconomic costs of oil dependence, the microeconomic costs of oil price volatility, and the cost of having our military forces ready for intervention in the Persian Gulf.”

The International Center for Technology Assessment reported in 2001 on the deception involved in the price of gasoline. It found that the real cost of gasoline, when the crucial indirect or hidden costs are included, was between $9 and $15 higher than the price paid at the pump.

Such estimates rarely appear in the mainstream media. As a result, many people are unaware of the high environmental and social costs of our economic transactions. Even if we remain unaware of these costs, we still have to pay for them. We’d be better off eliminating the deception embedded in our institutions and making economic decisions based on knowledge of true costs including the environmental impacts of growth. As long as deceptionomics rules, fuzzy math will be used to justify incessant GDP growth, and one by one we must say goodbye to the Aral Seas of the world.