Bike Out, Bike In

Surly's Long Haul Trucker
The New Car

Thursday was a very interesting day. I was fighting the flu for the previous two days, of all things in the middle of summer! (I blame climate change 😉 ) Anyway, I woke up and decided that I should go to work regardless of my overall malaise, only to find that my bike was gone.

That’s right! Stolen from my carport! Generally it’s stored closer to the house, a little more out of sight. Of course, this time it was left a little more visible, and in our nice little neighborhood someone nicked it! That’s the bike out.

A little back story before the bike in portion: We recently moved in a great house across from a wooded park, close to our sons new day care, and within 2 miles of my work. An added benefit is that we had no excuse to have two cars. So we finally sold my rig (the less fuel efficient one). With that money I planned on upgrading my bike, paying down some of our debt and putting some money into savings.

My Son's New Bike
Start Steady Staters Young, My Son's New Bike

So, as horrible as it is to have your bike stolen from you, it is just as fortunate that I have the money to finally get the bike of my dreams. I have been putting a lot of thought into what would fit me (tall guy) and my riding style (road, light touring). I went with the Surly Long Haul Trucker (photo above). It’s the first bike since I was my son’s age that actually fits me perfectly. I love it!

How does this relate to the steady state economy? Being a “steady stater” involves living within your ecological means without undermining the ability of future generations to live a similar life. Part of that is removing fossil fuels, a dirty, non-renewable resource that is destroying our planet, from your life. What better way than to bike instead of drive? Pick up a bike on craigslist or freecycle or a local bike shop and try to integrate biking to work a few times a week.

Mr President, Put Solar On The White House

Lead By Example, Symbols Are Powerful

Symbols are important. The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Great Wall are all examples of important cultural symbols. But even small symbols are important, in fact I would venture that smaller, local symbols are even more important on a day-to-day basis – the example of a father, the blessing of a ship, the courtesy of a door held open.

In order for the United States to survive the coming few decades as a society it will need to invest in something called resilience. This term has devoid from our lives for the past 50-100 years in part because of our belief that we will forever have cheap energy. The truth of the matter is that oil is peaking, and will run out soon.

Even before it runs out completely, it will get super expensive. This might not seem like a big deal to some, but to many this will increase the costs of everything we do, because nearly all of it relies on oil. Electricity, supermarket food, pencils, transportation, fresh water, lawn mowers, sewer, medical supplies, and waste water systems – everything either requires oil directly or indirectly.

Therefore, in order to increase our society’s resilience, we need to be able to take the shock of post-peak oil in stride. This means, among many other things, having readily available renewable energy. We should take advantage of our cheap(er) oil now to build the structures that will sustain a more resilient society after the peak. Once the shocks come it will likely be too late to make any proper transition to a renewable energy-powered society without hardship.

Back to symbols Рwe need a strong leader in this venture towards a sustainable society. President Obama has a great opportunity to provide a great symbol of our commitment on top of his house Рfor free! The Gl̵bama Campaign is provide a means for us to send a message to the president that he should do just that Рput solar panels on the white house!

Check it out here.

Life After Growth – Economics For Everyone

The economy’s gotten bigger, but the inequality has as well. Most of the growth in income is placed in the top 10-20% of the world. If you’re lucky enough to be that 1 in 10, or 1 in 5 people (by the way, cancer if more common now that being in that group), you might buy into the idea that economics growth is good, sustainable, and right. But think about the other four people in the room?

Growth has taken the place of our religions, our morals, and most of our society’s decisions – they are now framed by, simply, “is the price the right price.” Well, is it? We should be ensuring our economy is about “maintaining and renewing life on Earth, human life and all other life.” (Vandana Shiva)

This short film is a great synopsis of the arguments against growth. Life Without Growth – Economics For Everyone asks “what’s wrong with this picture?” and then goes further, asking “This degrowth idea might be an answer, but I don’t understand what it will look like in reality, what does it mean for me?”And it answers:

“It looks like a lot of things, that are happening right now: Voluntary Simplicity,” for one. Giving up your pursuit of more things, a bigger house, greater pay for a pursuit of less work, more fun, simple, non-complicated life.

“That sounds a bit extreme to me, are people doing this on a community level?” Yea, Transition Towns, for instance.

“Yea, but even if this is happening at a local level, the banks, the corporations and the governments – they’ll never buy it” Sure, in most cases, right now, but we can change that. And a lot of groovy things are going forward in some governments already: recognition of ecosystem services, adoption of well being metrics, et cetera.

“So, where do we go from here?” Work less, consume less, live more. Life after growth.
“Everywhere people are engaging in degrowth type activity – the beginning of a wave that is laying the groundwork for a post-capitalist future…

Because it’s not the size of the economy that counts, its how you use it!”

Life After Growth – Economics for Everyone from enmedia productions on Vimeo.

Capitalism, Socialism and Communism

Okay, I am tired of these terms being used improperly. The last two are thrown around by politicos like they’re handing out free candy. Usually socialism is used by someone (we all know who) to label something they want to attack without using an actual argument or facts to support their opinion (also called bullshit).

Let’s quickly review the actual definitions of these three types of systems:

Capitalism: An economic system that allows private ownership of production. That’s it, that’s all capitalism actually entails – not low taxes, or private health care, or small government. Capitalism is simply a system that does not have government control of production (the government doesn’t own the factories, the companies – well, outside of car companies now – or the processes to produce products. Period). Capitalism refers to a type of economy, not a necessarily a type of government (“Social democracies” in Europe are still capitalistic countries, as the government does not control production).

Socialism: An economic system that advocates either public or direct worker ownership and administration of production and allocation of resources. Socialism removes production and wage labor as commodities, maximizing the “use value” instead of the “exchange value” – that is to say, real wealth versus phantom wealth. In a socialist economy the worker owns the production means and rights to resources.

Communism: An economic and social structure that advocates complete public ownership of production and allocation of resources. Communism is by far the most intertwined with political control of classes, wages, and policies to eliminate poverty or wealth gaps. Communism is considered more of a political expansion of the economic system of socialism and has been in the past portrayed as an attempt to create a Marxism utopia through government (ironic, as true Marxism would have no government).

Each of these systems has political ramifications in any society that institutes it. However, capitalism and socialism in-and-of themselves are economic systems. More importantly, none of these systems require economic growth. You can easily have privately owned production (flourishing production) without a continual expansion of the entire economy. Each of them are human creations. Economic growth is a human creation!

Any human system will be flawed, but hopefully we learn from our mistakes and get closer and closer to perfecting it. Perhaps this is humanity’s own Zeno paradox. While communism doesn’t work for us and socialism has its flaws, why should we assume that rampant capitalism is the answer? We should question the flaws in our system and work to correct them. A non-growth economy can be communist, socialist, capitalist, or anything else we want it to be – the economy is our creation.

Social Business and Limits to Growth

Last night I attended a presentation by Dr Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate for his pioneering work in micro-credit. Titled ‘Abolishing Poverty – The Human Rights Priority’, the central messages in Dr Yunus’ presentation, to an enthusiastic and highly receptive Sydney crowd of more than 500, were simple. He believes access to credit is a human right; that we can end poverty by channelling the market forces of capitalism; and that we can ‘solve’ all the world’s problems if only private enterprise would be more widely accompanied by ‘social business’ – a term he uses to describe commercial activity whereby businesses whose primary goal is to help ‘the poor’, reinvest their entire profits back into their work, rather than into shareholder pockets. Holistically speaking, I am not convinced.

Dr Yunus’ track record is as incredible as his ideals are worthy. His present-day work began in 1974 when he loaned US$27 to a Bangladeshi woman who made bamboo furniture. Viewed as a ‘repayment risk’, traditional banks were not interested in considering such individuals for the provision of small loans. This experience was to prove life-changing for Dr Yunus.

Nine years later he established the Grameen Bank that has since disbursed US$6.6 billion in micro-loans averaging US$130 to ‘the poor’. Bypassing the traditional method of a customer needing to demonstrate collateral before a loan can be administered, the Grameen bank uses a customised approach to solidarity lending whereby each drawer must be in a five-person group that merely serves to encourage repayment. The results have been stunning. The bank boasts a repayment rate of 98.35 per cent and 97 per cent of its members are women. As Dr Yunus noted with a smile in his Sydney presentation, the global financial crisis showed who you can really bank on when it comes to repayments.

The Grameen model has now been replicated in over 100 countries, with proposals on the table for its extension to poverty-stricken cities in the ‘developed world’ such as Glasgow, in the U.K.

There is no doubting that Dr Yunus’ approach continues to challenge attitudes of business in both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world. But does it challenge these views enough to ensure our longer-term sustainability as a species? Thinking ahead, perhaps Dr Yunus’ approach sets us up to hit a fundamental ceiling in which inequity-creating businesses continue to thrive, removing hope for ‘poverty alleviation’ and sustainable futures, because their image in the community is largely defined by publicly-embraced subsidiary social businesses.

Unfortunately, Dr Yunus’ presentation reinforced my frustration with what I see as ultimately atomistic arguments made by our ‘poverty champions’ (think Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, Hugh Evans). Thus, when the floor opened up to questions I asked:

“In a world with serious biophysical limits, how can any growth-based financial system – including micro-credit – ever be truly sustainable?”

Dr Yunus quickly replied that human creativity is an amazing thing and that I should not be so grim.

I sat down. Given the chance, I would have responded by saying that his answer is the kind men have been giving ever since anthropogenic global warming became accepted by mainstream audiences and the news on this front is not getting any better. At its heart, I believe Dr Yunus’ answer falls somewhat into the common habit of using the term ‘creativity’ as a pseudonym for ‘technological innovation’. In this sense, there is mounting evidence that such faith is misplaced; that the idea of de-coupling economic growth from environmental degradation at the speed required to avoid catastrophic effects from climate change is totally unrealistic. In addition to the problem that increased technological efficiency often equates to greater levels of associated consumption, as Professor Tim Jackson from the University of Surrey in the U.K. has recently shown:

“In a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to a level of income commensurate with 2% growth on the average European Union income today, carbon intensities (e.g.) would have to fall, on average, by more than 11% per year to stabilize the climate, 16 times faster than they have fallen since 1990. By 2050, the global carbon intensity would need to be only 6 grams per dollar of output, almost 130 times lower than it is today…”

All said and done, I remain critically hopeful. I think Dr Yunus is inspiring and well-intentioned, and I like his concept of social business – similar to what we, in Australia, call not-for-profit social entrepreneurship. In fact, I like his concept so much that I propose we be brave enough to entertain the thought of a world in which every business is a social business.

From large multinationals to small cafes, what could we create if the ‘developed world’ unhooked itself from its addiction to quantitative growth and the ‘developing world’ was free from ideological and physical coercion to adopt unsustainable ‘development models’? As Dr Yunus is quick to note, when you take the individual profit motive out of it, anything becomes truly possible.

Guest contributor Donnie Maclurcan runs an Australian social business, is investigating nanotechnology and its consequences for global inequity and is working on a film about the limits to growth.