Friday, December 27, 2013

One Woman’s Brief Annual Report on the State of the World

This is the season for sending greeting cards and emails about one’s foreign journeys and new pets. I am well and did travel a bit in 2013 but I have no pets so I will write about my opinions instead. I have plenty of those. I’d love for you to reciprocate by saying how you suggest we solve the world’s main problems. We cannot do everything, so we must select our issues thoughtfully.

In an emergency, medical teams perform “triage,” sorting the wounded into three groups: those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive; those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive; and those for whom immediate care with available resources may make a crucial difference. This third category receives top priority.

Our current global problems can also be sorted into the three categories and priorized. They are not, as were calamities of the old days, “acts of God,” but the outcome of ill-informed human decisions. Three particular issues are especially urgent; they must be solved if civilization is to continue, and they can be solved if we focus on them. They are (1) weapons and warfare, (2) climate change, (3) the governance of our biosphere. They are all inter-related systems, so whenever we work on one of them we are often addressing the others as well. Here are my priorities for beginning to save the world in January 2014.

1. Weapons and War

To obtain sufficient funding to repair the world, we must reallocate much of the world’s military funding, which consumes about $1.7 trillion per year. Since nuclear weapons are both useless and dangerous, we can disarm those first. Though we worry about a nuclear Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan, it’s even more necessary for the five official nuclear states—the US, Russia, France, UK, and China—to disarm their own arsenals now, as they are obliged to do under Article Six of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The non-nuclear states will not indefinitely tolerate the hypocrisy of the nuclear countries—including Israel—as they retain bombs that other countries may not have.

What to do?  Promote the UN proposal to create a Nuclear Weapons Convention to ban the use, and probably also possession, of nuclear weapons by any state.[i]
Moreover, the wars that are taking place in such places as Sudan, Congo, and Syria are possible only because small arms are imported. In April the General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms ranging from rifles to tanks, combat planes, and warships. The treaty will stop arms flowing into conflict regions and reduce human rights abuses. The US has signed it but Canada has not. The treaty does not affect the right to own weapons within a country, but restricts only the international trade.

What to do? Insist that the US Congress ratify the Arms Trade Treaty and that Canada sign and ratify it.

2. Climate Change
Global warming is caused mainly by humankind’s CO2 emissions. A shift to completely renewable energy is technically feasible and would cost barely more than business as usual. Science for Peace co-hosted a visit in 2012 by Mark Jacobson, who described his plan to power the planet entirely with renewables.[ii] Nevertheless, certain industries (especially oil) wield great political clout, making it difficult to achieve the  transition before global warming reaches the tipping point of irreversibility. Natural gas and nuclear have been touted as “bridges” to allow more time for the transition to renewables, but by Jacobson’s calculations they are counterproductive.

Taking economic and political pressures into account, can we make the transition to renewable fuels quickly enough? Probably not. Even if we could cut emissions sharply tonight, the earth would continue warming for years. Actions faster than emission reduction also will be required. We must either remove and sequester some greenhouse gas that is already in the atmosphere, or block some incoming sunshine. Both approaches amount to “geo-engineering.” There are varying degrees of risk involved, but even the most dangerous proposals may seem attractive in five years.

What to do? Let’s shift some of that $1.7 trillion into two safe methods of capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon, starting now. These two are reforestation and biochar production, both of which remove carbon from the atmosphere for sequestration. Forests provide only temporary sequestration, but biochar’s carbon can be stored in the soil for thousands of years. By some estimates, its optimum use could remove more than ten percent of the CO2 we are emitting annually, and also improve the productivity of soils. That’s a start.

If even stronger interventions become necessary, we might add whichever geo-engineering schemes seem most reversible and least risky, such as possibly spraying sea water into the air to make clouds that reflect some of the sun’s rays. The cheapest and most frequently proposed technology—spraying sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere—is less attractive, for it might deplete the ozone, reduce solar power generation and agricultural productivity, and its effects could not be stopped quickly. No country or group should undertake such a project without the full consent of the entire world, though today no international law prohibits it.

3. Governing the Biosphere
We share the planet with other animals and plants, many of which are endangered by our destruction of habitat and genetic diversity. Oceans are acidifying, lakes are eutrophicating, lands are desertifying and eroding, and species are dying. Yet in most cases, we know of helpful responses that would be technically feasible, but which we cannot effect because of institutional inertia—obstacles in governance. Here I do not mean only legal and political structures, but also economic realities such as banks, corporations, and land-ownership.

Let me illustrate. Over seventy percent of the world’s population favors nuclear disarmament. (Israel is the only country in which less than half do so.) Yet even those of us living in democracies have been unable to make this happen, so we remain at risk.  If, for example, India and Pakistan go to war and exchange 100 nuclear bombs, the smoke from burning cities would blot out the sun and plunge the entire northern hemisphere into darkness lasting years. We would all starve or freeze to death.[iii] How many military leaders realize this fact? I don’t know, but the risk is never discussed. This is a problem in governance.

Another example: Biochar’s effects on the planet are virtually all benign. In massive amounts it could reduce the difficulty of feeding humankind, while it sucked CO2 out of the atmosphere with no known undesirable effects. If you drive through the Rockies, for hundreds of miles you pass red trees killed by pine beetles. It would be possible to fell them, move them downhill with moveable rope structures like ski lifts, make them into biochar on the spot, and bury it, either on-site or on farms, restoring Canada’s depleted soil.

But who would pay for this? There is no significant market for biochar. Any solution has to include a proposal that works in terms of our political economy. If we could introduce legislation requiring that, say, fifty percent of all fertilizer should be biochar, there would suddenly be demand, and we would reduce nitrogen run-off that is eutrophicating our lakes and even the Gulf of Mexico.[iv] So this is a political problem. The businesses that profit from present methods of fertilization would oppose any such idea, and the public is not sufficiently aware of the options to pressure their legislators for change. (Here’s a project for you.)

Another example: one-way streets and no-left-turn signs. These signs require cars and trucks to drive many unnecessary miles every week to their destinations. Theoretically  they ease the flow of traffic. Probably this is sometimes a valid reason, but if engineers re-calculated today the overall costs to society, taking account of the excessive CO2 emissions, their verdicts might often change. Still, if you complain—even to your environmentalist friends—about these institutionalized routines, you will be shocked by their negative responses. No one wants to reconsider traffic flow practices. This is not a technological problem but a lag in governance.

Sometimes governance problems are growing worse, not better. Consider, for example, the shifts taking place in science. Rather than funding research to solve curiosity, universities now encourage scientists to form partnerships with corporations in pursuit of instrumental discoveries that can be patented and sold. New rules governing intellectual property and confidentiality are being imposed all around the world through the World Trade Organization, even though the overall effect is to reduce the amount of fundamental discovery that is generated and made available to other researchers.

Why would universities accept such deleterious institutional changes? Evidently this is  the result of a changing world view in which all human problems are expected to be solved by markets. As one who used to visit communist societies, I consider markets excellent ways of allocating scarce materials. Nevertheless, universities and research labs should promote the unrestricted flow of information, not allocate it on the basis of supply and demand. Some call this commercialized model “neo-liberalism,” but I prefer Joseph Stiglitz’s term for it: “market fundamentalism.”

In 2008 Stiglitz asserted that the economic recession had killed market fundamentalism by revealing that it does not work, just as the fall of the Berlin wall killed communism by proving that it did not work.[v] In 2014, however, I can’t see that market fundamentalism has been killed at all. Indeed, it is reigning—probably because there has been no coherent alternative economic model since the downfall of communism. People don’t have any systemic worldview from which to reply to the assumptions of market fundamentalism, which is in full swing, virtually unchallenged. It is not the only problem in contemporary governance, of course. Many other institutional changes could help us move forward.

What to do? Here are four suggestions: First, let’s hold corporations and global regulatory bodies socially accountable by requiring transparency, the election of a certain percentage of NGOs to their boards, and procedures by which transnational NGOs can challenge their regulations.  International governance needs to become more democratic.

Second, let’s promote direct taxation of carbon fuel. No other single piece of legislation could equal its powerful effect against global warming. Even if we gave all of that money back to the citizens it would still create an incentive for them to reduce their use of fossil fuels.

Third, let’s adopt a “Tobin Tax” (aka “Robin Hood Tax”) on the international flow of money. I’d like to see this paid to the United Nations, so it can carry out the humanitarian, peacekeeping, and regulatory functions necessary in a world in which power and interests extend across borders.

Fourth, let’s collectively assess our global problems, applying “triage.” We cannot do everything, and the vast proliferation of issues leaves us feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed.

The three issues that I have chosen here are inter-related, and if we concentrate on solving them, they will unclog the system that makes us all feel helpless. But you may have other priorities. We can choose our priorities together, and then we can each figure out how to work on them. It will feel great. Happy 2014!