Category Archives: Education & Publications

Social Values for Ecosystem Services, Version 2.0

The Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center has just released Social Values for Ecosystem Services, Version 2.0 (SolVES 2.0). SolVES 2.0 is a custom toolbar for ArcGIS 9.3 designed to allow users to assess, map, and quantify social values attributed to ecosystem services by various stakeholder groups. Please visit solves.cr.usgs.gov to download and learn more about SolVES 2.0.

ABSTRACT. In response to the need for incorporating quantified and spatially explicit measures of social values into ecosystem services assessments, the Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center (RMGSC), in collaboration with Colorado State University, developed a geographic information system (GIS) application, Social Values for Ecosystem Services (SolVES). SolVES is designed to assess, map, and quantify the perceived social values for ecosystems, such as aesthetics, biodiversity, and recreation.  These values, often equating to cultural ecosystem services, can be analyzed for various stakeholder groups as distinguished by their attitudes and preferences regarding public uses, such as motorized recreation or logging.  SolVES derives a quantitative, 10-point, social-values metric, the Value Index, from a combination of spatial and nonspatial responses to public attitude and preference surveys and calculates metrics characterizing the underlying environment, such as average distance to water and dominant landcover.

With version 2.0 (SolVES 2.0), RMGSC has improved and extended the functionality of SolVES, most notably via integrating the Maxent maximum entropy modeling software to generate more complete social-value maps and to produce robust statistical models describing the relationship between social values and explanatory environmental variables. The addition of Maxent more readily permits the transfer of social-value models to areas where primary survey data are not available. SolVES 2.0 also introduces the flexibility for users to define their own social values and public uses, model any number and type of environmental variables, and modify the spatial resolution of analysis. With these enhancements, SolVES 2.0 provides an improved public-domain tool for decision-makers and researchers to evaluate the social value of ecosystems and to facilitate discussions among diverse stakeholders regarding the tradeoffs among different management options in a variety of physical and social contexts, ranging from forest and rangeland to coastal and marine.

Juliet Schor narrates “Visualizing a Plentitude Economy”

Dr. Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, and recipient of the USSEE 2011 Herman Daly Award narrates “Visualizing a Plentitude Economy“, a fun animation that provides a vision of what a post-consumer society could look like, with people working fewer hours and pursuing re-skilling, homesteading, and small-scale enterprises that can help reduce the overall size and impact of the consumer economy. Produced by the Center for a New American Dream. Narrated by economist and best-selling author Juliet Schor.

The New Austerity and the EROI Squeeze

by Eric Zencey
[Cross-posted from the Daly News, blog of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy]

The government of Minnesota has shut down thanks to a $5 billion budget gap. Wisconsin public employees have been de-unionized so their salaries and benefits can be cut to close a budget gap. New Jersey just missed shutting down as a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor agreed that austerity cuts are needed (though there’s still going to be some wrangling over how the pain will be distributed). Last week the Italian cabinet signed off on $68 billion in austerity cuts. Demonstrations in Britain and riots in Athens, prompted by government cuts in pensions and social security, suggest what may lie in Italy’s future. In the U.S., we’ve got gridlock-and-extortion in Congress over raising the federal debt limit, even as both sides are generally agreed that the era of ever-rising deficits is over.

Though not a single politician or mainstream economic analyst has ever made the connection, the new worldwide austerity in public spending traces to a physical cause, as measured by change in EROI — energy return on energy invested. This is the ratio between the energy that comes into the global economy and the energy it takes to produce that energy. Worldwide, the average EROI of oil is down to 20:1 from its original value of 100:1 eighty years ago. This means that our oil-fueled economy simply has less capacity to generate wealth than it did back then, because an increasing share of the energy that used to be dedicated to producing goods and services is being plowed back into securing energy.

Even more troubling than oil’s 20:1 global average is the figure for new oil, just 5 to 1. It takes a lot of energy to drill five miles under the ocean and pump crude back to a refinery, or to cook tar sands to extract a usable fuel. The energy wellspring at the heart of our economy no longer gushes a torrent of wealth; it’s a smaller, much-diminished stream.

Wind and other renewable energy sources offer returns in the seventeen-to-one range — still a nice income flow, but nothing like the flood we once got from oil. Everything our economy accomplishes, including health care, government, schools, roads, defense, repairing our aging infrastructure and re-engineering our built environment to handle the changed weather that oil use has given us, is going to have to be financed from a much-diminished EROI. And private largess, such as the oil-fueled philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie that built libraries and established foundations and grants for worthy public causes, will fare no better. (The conservative notion that private philanthropy will increase if government takes a smaller bite of the total economy is mostly wishful thinking; the rising overhead costs of energy — the increasing energy cost of energy — will shrink the economic pie as a whole, no matter where we make our slice between the public and private sectors).

Conservatives in Washington and elsewhere insist that we can no longer afford the level of governmental services we’ve become accustomed to. Their call for austerity in public spending is partially right, but for reasons that are wholly wrong: they think that by busting public unions, by reneging on pension agreements for teachers and public employees, by privatizing the production of public goods (streets, schools, even national defense), by cutting regulations and in general shrinking the government, they’ll release the pent-up entrepreneurial energies of business, which will put things back the way they were a few decades ago, when oil was returning a respectable 40:1. That’s simply not going to happen.

Beyond the wrangling between the deficit reducers and the Keynesians, like Paul Krugman, who warn (correctly) that deficit reduction during a recession will only make the recession worse, there lies another deficit, one that no one is talking about: the deficit we’re currently running in our country’s environmental account. We’re drawing down natural capital to cash it out as wealth, which means we’re spending a capital stock — healthy ecosystems — as if it were income. Worse, we borrow money against the prospect of being able to do this forever. That, too, simply isn’t going to happen.

We’ve begun to recognize that we can’t borrow infinitely against our financial future. At some point we have to recognize that we can’t borrow infinitely against our environmental future, either. We’ve got to learn to budget ourselves to the level of economic activity that can be supported and maintained by current solar income instead of running that account in the red. We’ve got to stop counting on continued drawdown of finite stocks of fossil fuel and stop counting on paying our current expenses by borrowing against the continual expansion of our economy’s ecological footprint.

The partisans of Infinite Planet Theory who are managing our (supposedly) infinite growth economy don’t recognize this. They don’t see the shape of the emergent reality: the energy overhead of our economy is increasing at precisely the moment we need even greater investment to build a sustainable, renewable energy society and re-engineer our civil infrastructures to handle the world as we have made it. It’s a very difficult squeeze: needed expenses are rising as income flow declines.

There is some room for hope. It is possible to have a decent civilization founded on the rates of return that renewable energy offers — and unlike the EROI of oil, those rates can be expected to increase with time and technological development. Solving the EROI squeeze means committing ourselves to building the infrastructure we need to capture current solar income and run our economy on renewable, non-carbon-based energy. Every unit of fossil energy we use to do anything else commits the United States and the planet as a whole to a lower, more straitened standard of living in the future. If we want to see an America of crumbling concrete and weed-filled vacant lots, an America too poor to repair its buildings and bridges, too poor to educate its young to the highest standards, an America that has become a fallen, impoverished power, we need only continue as we are: burning fossil fuel, ignoring climate change, and refusing to invest in the renewable energy infrastructure we need for a sane, rational, steady state economy.

Call for Papers for next issue of Reviews in Ecological Economics

After two years of co-sponsoring the publication of Ecological Economics Reviews (EER) as a special issue of the ‘Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences’, the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics is pleased to announce a move to Springer and a slightly different name: Reviews in Ecological Economics (REE). We are confident that this move will strengthen the new REE and increase our exposure and recognition.

As an editorial board member of REE, I would like to invite you to contribute an article to the upcoming issue.  Deadline for the contributions is November 1st.  Author guidelines can be found at http://www.springer.com/authors/book+authors?SGWID=0-154102-12-417900-0.

The mission of REE is to provide authoritative reviews of key topics in Ecological Economics. REE will be published once per year, with most contributions invited and peer reviewed.

For any questions, please email the REE managing editor, Ida Kubiszewski (ida.kub@gmail.com).

Jon D. Erickson
President, U.S. Society for Ecological Economics

Fitting the Name to the Named

Cross-posted from The Daly News

by Herman Daly

There may well be a be a better name than “steady-state economy”, (SSE) but both the classical economists (especially John Stuart Mill) and the past few decades of discussion, not to mention CASSE’s good work, have given considerable currency to “steady-state economy” both as concept and name. Also both the name and concept of  a “steady state” are independently familiar to demographers, population biologists, and physicists. The classical economists used the term “stationary state” but meant by it exactly what we mean by steady-state economy—briefly, a constant population and stock of physical wealth. We have added the condition that these stocks should be maintained constant by a low rate entropic throughput, one that is well within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Any new name for this idea should be sufficiently better to compensate for losing the advantages of historical continuity and interdisciplinary familiarity. Also, SSE conveys the recognition of biophysical constraints and the intention to live within them economically—which is exactly why it can’t help evoking some initial negative reaction in a growth-dominated world. There is an honesty and forthright clarity about the term “steady-state economy” that should not be sacrificed to the short-term political appeal of vagueness.

A confusion arises with neoclassical growth economists’ use of the term “steady-state growth” to refer to the case where labor and capital grow at the same rate, thus maintaining a constant labor to capital ratio, even though both absolute magnitudes are growing. This should have been called “proportional growth”, or perhaps “steady growth”. The term “steady-state growth” is inept because growth is a process, not a state, not even a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Having made my terminological preference clear, I should add that there is nothing wrong with other people using various preferred synonyms, as long as we all mean basically the same thing. Steady state, stationary state, dynamic equilibrium, microdynamic-macrostatic economy, development without growth, degrowthpost-growth economy, economy of permanence, “new” economy, “mature” economy. These are all in use already, including by me at times. I have learned that English usage evolves quite independently of me, although like others I keep trying to “improve” it for both clarity and rhetorical advantage. If some other term catches on and becomes dominant then so be it, as long as it denotes the reality we agree on. Let a thousand synonyms bloom and linguistic natural selection will go to work. Also it is good to remind sister organizations that their favorite term, when actually defined, is usually a close synonym to SSE. If it is not then we have a difference of substance rather than of terminology.

Out of France now comes the “degrowth” (decroissance) movement. This arises from the recognition that the present scale of the economy is too large to be maintained in a steady state—its required throughput exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem of which it is a part. This is almost certainly true. Nevertheless “degrowth”, just like growth, is a temporary process for reaching an optimal or at least sustainable scale that we then should strive to maintain in a steady state.

Some say it is senseless to advocate a steady state unless we first have attained, or can at least specify, the optimal level at which to remain stationary. On the contrary, it is useless to know the optimum unless we first know how to live in a steady state. Otherwise knowing the optimum level will just allow us to wave goodbye to it as we grow beyond it—or as we “degrow” below it.  Optimal level is one thing; optimal growth rate is something else. Once we have reached the optimal level then the optimal growth rate is zero; if we are below that level the temporary optimal growth rate is at least known to be positive; if we are above the optimal level we at least know that the temporary growth rate should be negative. But the first order of business is to recognize the long run necessity of the steady state, and to stop positive growth. Once we have done that, then we can worry about how to “degrow” to a more sustainable level, and how fast.

There is really no conflict between the SSE and “degrowth” since no one advocates negative growth as a permanent process; and no one advocates trying to maintain a steady state at the unsustainable present scale of population and consumption. But many people do advocate continuing positive growth beyond the present excessive scale, and they are the ones in control, and who need to be confronted by a united opposition!

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, adopted by the “degrowth” movement as its posthumous founder, indeed recognized that the very long run growth rate must be negative given the entropy law and the final dissolution of the universe. But he did not advocate speeding up that cosmic result by negative growth as an economic policy, nor for that matter did he in the least advocate a steady-state economy! In fact he speculated that the destiny of mankind might be to have a short, fiery, and exciting life rather than a long and uneventful one. He did, however, tentatively suggest a “minimal bio-economic program”[1] that would surely reduce growth. In general he was interested in what is possible more than in what is desirable. The question—given the limits of the possible, what is the most desirable policy for mankind?—was not his main focus, although he did not entirely ignore it. The closest he came to explicitly dealing with that question was in the following footnote[2]:

Is it not true that mankind’s problem is to economize S (a stock) for as large an amount of life as possible, which implies to minimize sj (a flow) for some “good life?

In other words, should we not strive to maximize cumulative lives ever to be lived over time by depleting S (terrestrial low-entropy stocks) at an annual rate sj that is low, but sufficient for a “good life”? There is no point in maximizing years lived in misery, so the qualification “for a good life” is important. I have always thought that Georgescu-Roegen should have put that question in bold in the text, rather than hiding it in a footnote. True enough, eventually S will be gone and mankind will revert to what he called “a berry-picking economy” until the sun burns out, if not driven to extinction sooner by some other event. But in the meantime, striving for a steady state at a resource use rate sufficient for a good (but not luxurious) life, seems to me a worthy goal, a goal of maximizing the cumulative life satisfaction possible under limited total resource constraints. This puts at the very center of economics the questions:

Needless to say these questions have not been central to modern economics—indeed, not even peripheral!

Georgescu-Roegen did not like the idea of “sustainability” any more than that of a steady-state economy because he interpreted both to mean “ecological salvation” or perpetual life for our species on earth—which of course flies in the teeth of the entropy law. And he was right about that. So sustainability should be understood as longevity, not eternal species-life in the sense of perpetuity. Clear scientific thinking about “forever” seems, interestingly, to lead to the religious model of death and resurrection, new creation, not perpetual continuation of this creation. Perpetuity in this world is just a glorified perpetual motion machine! To think about forever we must cross from science into theology. But longevity (a long and good life for both individual and species), even if it falls short of forever, or “ecological salvation”, is still a worthy goal both for scientists and theologians, not to mention economists. A steady-state economy is arguably the best strategy for achieving longevity—regardless of what we call it.


[1] N. Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths”, reprinted in H. Daly and K. Townsend, Valuing the Earth, MIT Press, 1993, p. 103-4.

[2] Ibid. p. 107, fn 11.


The Green Transition Scoreboard: How to Invest for a Steady State Economy

Cross-posted from The Daly News

By Rosalinda Sanquiche

We must take some critical steps if we want to build a truly green economy — a steady state that meets global needs without undermining the life-support systems of the planet.  Clearly we need to move beyond fossil fuels.  We need to scale back the amount of energy and materials we’re consuming, especially in OECD countries.  We need to build a durable infrastructure, supportive of a low-carbon future.  One way to take these critical steps is through smart investments.  With governments stubbornly open to dangerous Industrial Era methods like nuclear power, despite the crisis in Japan, smart investments must come from the private sector.  The good news is that private investors are taking a strong lead, as demonstrated by the most recent update of the Green Transition Scoreboard® (GTS).

The GTS is a tool for tracking private investments in green markets, and the February 2011 update reveals an encouraging $2 trillion worth of investments in the green economy since 2007.  This amount is significant because many studies, computer models and reports indicate that investing $1 trillion annually between now and 2020 can ramp up material and energy efficiencies; reduce the costs of wind, solar and geothermal energy; increase sustainable land use and forestry; and support smart infrastructure, transport, building and urban re-design, all of which are necessary to achieve the green transition to a steady state economy.

The updated numbers for 2010 put global private sector investors on track to reach $10 trillion in investments by 2020!  How can more investments support a steady state?  The key is to spur substantial investment in the right sectors.  It’s a winning proposition, as smart investing can help societies use fewer energy and material resources and provide needed employment opportunities.

The GTS tracks five sectors:

  • Renewable Energy;
  • Efficiency and Green Construction;
  • Cleantech;
  • Smart Grid; and
  • Corporate R&D.

Renewable Energy includes private technology development, equipment manufacturing, and project finance. The Efficiency and Green Construction sector includes new building construction and existing building retrofits. Cleantech is a broad sector, encompassing agriculture, air and environment, energy efficiency, infrastructure and storage, materials, recycling and waste reduction, transportation and water/wastewater. Smart Grid includes companies actually putting smart grids in place, building the infrastructure rather than designing the technology.  Together, these first four sectors account for over $1.8 trillion in investments since 2007.

INVESTMENTS in the GREEN TRANSITION
2007 – 2010
Sector (US $)
Renewable Energy 1,358,937,000,000
Efficiency and Green Construction 282,011,000,000
Cleantech 65,024,042,088
Smart Grid 135,263,000,000
Corporate R&D 163,813,743,000
Total 2,005,048,758,088

Corporate R&D in green transition technologies alone accounts for over $163 billion in investments.  The GTS is the only source of aggregate corporate green research and development investments, specifically tracking R&D dollars for  innovative technologies that reduce the use of natural resources and minimize environmental impacts.

Several subsectors, such as nuclear, biofuels and coal carbon sequestration, have been purposefully omitted either because of controversy or lack of consensus that they will make a long-term contribution to sustainability.

Green technologies often draw on available local resources in a more cost-effective, timely manner than dated technologies of the fossil fuel era.  The GTS was created by Hazel Henderson, president of Ethical Markets Media, as a public service to help develop the green economy, reform market metrics, and provide due diligence worldwide.  Many developing countries where these technologies are of paramount importance lack the resources to compile the data encompassed in the GTS.  To provide this information as widely as possible, the GTS is available to the UN agencies spearheading the UN’s Green Economy Initiative.

To meet the challenge of achieving a sustainable and fair economy, investment funds need to be shifted away from ill-conceived hedge funds and dark pools, and away from sectors that depend on fossil fuels.  A modest goal for global private investment would be to direct 10% of portfolios to companies driving the global green transition. With the data in the GTS, security analysts can update their asset allocation models to highlight green markets.

The future of the economy will be determined by the investments we choose today.  Institutional investors need information like what’s provided by the GTS to make wise decisions.  As Ethical Markets Media continues to improve the Green Transition Scoreboard and as green sectors emerge around the world, investors will play a key role in building a 21st century economy that provides prosperity within the capacity of the planet.

__________

Rosalinda Sanquiche is the executive director of Ethical Markets Media.

Sustainable Business: Practices in Support of People, Profit and Principles

For decades, Vermont has been growing businesses that are worldwide leaders in clean energy and environmental stewardship – categories we would all call the “green” industries.

But what about a t-shirt printing business or CPA or lending institution?

Are they part of the green sector? Is marketing a “green” job?

The traditional answer would be “no” but at a time when all businesses can benefit from sustainable practices, the trend is for growth not just in “green jobs” but in the greening of all industries in any sector. Management of resources with consideration for the true cost of a business’s people and environmental impact when calculating profit is applicable to any organization.

In Vermont, many nationally-known businesses have applied the principles of environmental sustainability and social responsibility and still remain highly profitable. The question is, “How?”

Through the “Sustainable Business: Practices in Support of People, Profit and Principles” experience – a five-day, intensive summer program at the University of Vermont’s Burlington, Vermont campus – you can learn the design, organization and management principles and practices that have made these Vermont enterprises sustainable and profitable from the very business leaders who have forged the way. More importantly, you can apply what you learn.

For more information on this summer’s program (July 11-15), visit the Sustainable Business web site at the University of Vermont.

Growth of GDP and Discontent in Egypt and Tunisia

Cross-posted from The Daly News.

by Eric Zencey

The regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia have been hailed as victories for democracy, as proof of the liberalizing power of social networking media, as testimony to the power of nonviolent political action. All of that they may indeed be; but the events in Egypt and Tunisia also illustrate a major defect in our economic thinking, one from which we should draw a very different and much more cautionary conclusion.

The flaw in standard economic theory that’s behind the Middle East’s winter of discontent is the acceptance of gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of citizen well-being. A recent poll by the Gallup organization, reported in early February, found that despite significant gains in per capita GDP in both Egypt and Tunisia, the level of well-being of their citizens has been falling over the past decade. This decline in well-being certainly played a role in the unrest that put citizens in the streets, challenging their governments.

In Egypt, between 2005 and 2010 per capita GDP rose from $4,762 per year to $6,367. In Tunisia it rose from $7,182 to $9,489. But both countries saw a significant decline in the percentage of the population that is classified as thriving according to a standard, well established measure.

That measure is the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, developed by a researcher named Hadley Cantril. It’s a survey research tool, and asks respondents to answer a few simple questions:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you are standing at the present time? On which step of the ladder do you think you will stand about five years from now?

To rank as “thriving,” respondents have to have positive views of their current place on the ladder (seven or higher) and positive expectations about the future (eight or higher). Below that, respondents are ranked as “struggling”—their “ladder-future” expectation is lower than the present, or both values fall below the thriving range. Below struggling is “suffering,” people who report their place on the ladder at four or below.

The Cantril Scale correlates with objective markers of well-being. Thrivers have fewer health problems and fewer sick days, while reporting less worry, stress, and anxiety and more enjoyment, happiness, and respect. Those in the struggling category report more daily stress and worry about money than the “thriving” respondents, and more than double the amount of sick days. Those in the “suffering” category are more likely to report that they lack basics like food and shelter, more likely to report physical pain, and more likely to experience higher levels of stress, worry, sadness, and anger. They have more than double the rate of diseases compared to “thriving” respondents.

In both countries, as GDP rose steadily, the number of citizens categorized as “thriving” fell. In Egypt, 29% of people reported themselves as thriving in 2005, but that number fell to just 11% in 2010. In Tunisia, Cantril Scale data are unavailable prior to 2008, when 24% of the population could be classified as thriving; that number fell to 14% in 2010, a 40% decline.

The nonviolent revolutions in both countries may have been motivated less by abstract commitment to democratic freedom than by widespread experience of a declining standard of living and increased economic insecurity, even in the face of rising GDP. Two factors contribute to this result that seems paradoxical within the standard model of economic thinking: (1) increasing inequality in income and (2) increasing food prices.

Thanks in part to the Aswan Dam, which interrupted the regular cycle by which Nile delta farmlands were re-nourished by annual flooding, Egypt has been the single largest importer of grain in the world. When Russia announced an embargo on grain exports (the result of unprecedented, climate-change-driven weather that scorched into ruin nearly half of Russia’s usual annual harvest), the price of food shot up. Before the embargo, the average Egyptian family spent 38% of its income on food (compared to 7% in the U.S.). Most simply couldn’t afford the higher prices, and hunger and food insecurity spread through the middle class. Perversely, GDP counted higher food prices as a positive contribution to well-being.

Because of that basic flaw, a rising GDP did not mean a rising standard of living. And even if GDP were a more accurate measure of material well-being, it would still be mathematically possible for a very large number of people to become worse off economically as per capita GDP rises.  This situation could occur if there is growing income inequality (i.e., the benefits of increasing GDP aren’t widely shared). In Egypt and Tunisia, that mathematical possibility became an economic fact—and a politically charged social condition.

Declining standards of well-being are politically destabilizing, and lead naturally enough to sweeping support for regime change. In Egypt and Tunisia the regimes happened to be despotic, and the call for change came as a commitment to democracy, an end to corruption, and demands for civil liberties. But within democracies, declining standards of living can have the opposite effect. Open and institutionalized systems of regime change—voting—will absorb the discontent for a time, but if the decline lasts too long, and can’t be blamed on a particular party in power, pressure grows for stepping outside established parties for new, radical, revolutionary approaches. Democratic forms are no proof against a slide into repressive forms. In Germany in the 1930’s, a declining standard of living contributed to the rise of the Nazi party; Hitler was democratically elected to the office of Chancellor (and then proceeded to establish himself as Fuehrer).

As America’s perpetual-growth economy faces the reality of ecological limits, as climate change imposes costs and decreased well-being on us, as energy and other resource prices increase, we face the prospect of a widespread decline in our standard of living. Americans coming of age today are among the first generation who can’t be confident that they will be better off than their parents; by one widely used measure of well-being (the genuine progress indicator, which deducts loss of ecosystem services and other “disamenities” from the national accounts), the American standard of living has flatlined since the 1970s, despite continued strong growth in GDP.

Thus the cautionary lessons from Egypt and Tunisia. GDP is a measure of the commotion of money in an economy, not a measure of delivered well-being. If sustained or rising well-being is what is economically and politically desirable, we should measure it directly, instead of counting on GDP to do the job. And if we accept the idea of popular sovereignty—that governments rule with “the just consent of the governed,” as Jefferson put it in our Declaration of Independence—we must recognize that as the middle class goes, so goes the legitimacy of the regime in power. No system of government—despotic or democratic—fares well when the majority of its citizens experiences a declining standard of living.

When increasing the standard of living depends on continual expansion of the economy’s ecological footprint, that increase must at some point come to an end. The examples of Egypt and Tunisia invite us to ask: what then?

————–

Eric Zencey is a visiting associate professor of historical and political studies at Empire State College of the State University of New York, and an affiliate of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming The Other Road to Serfdom: Essays in Sustainable Democracy.

 

Summer school series in Environmental Governance

The Norwegian University of Life Sciences is organizing a summer school series in Environmental Governance. The first course will run from June 20-July 1, 2011. The title of this course is ‘Environmental governance: Institutions for sustainable development’. The summer school is directed towards PhDs. A few places will also be offered to young researchers in the field. More information is found at:

www.umb.no/thor-heyerdahl-summer-school

Deadline for application for the 2011 course is February 15.

The Economics of Lawns and Landscaping

Cross-posted from:


The Economics of Lawns and Landscaping
by Brent Blackwelder

Throughout the United States in urban and suburban settings and in small towns, lawns and massive amounts of non-native flowers, shrubs, and trees dominate the landscape. Such an unhealthy landscape is hardly surprising within an economy obsessed with growth. We lay out grass lawns as fast as possible and throw down landscape arrangements with very little concern for ecological consequences. In contrast, a more thoughtfully designed and ecologically sound landscape fits hand in hand with the framework of a steady state economy.

What’s the Problem with Current Landscape Practices?

The landscaping choices of home and business owners tend to be costly from an economic and an environmental perspective. Around $45 billion is spent annually to care for the 40 million acres of lawns in the U.S., with 800 million gallons of gasoline burned in dirty lawnmower engines. Application of broad-leaf herbicides and high-nitrogen fertilizers for yard maintenance also entails harmful runoff into streams, rivers, bays and estuaries.

Because of the health consequences of chemically laced lawns that are maintained by oil-chugging equipment, a number of organizations such as Beyond Pesticides and SafeLawns have been promoting alternatives. SafeLawns features a slogan, “Time to Get Your Grass Off Gas,” that is particularly pertinent, as the BP spill is the latest in the ongoing oil spills, leaks, and other fiascoes attributable to our dependence on oil.

Of the 220 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions coming annually from off-road vehicles, lawn equipment like mowers and leaf blowers produce about 12% or 26 million tons of the total. Air quality in urban areas can suffer greatly as a result of the dirty motors typically running such equipment.

Importation of non-native species for landscaping causes another set of expensive problems (again from both an economic and an environmental standpoint). And the costly impacts of importing alien ornamental shrubs and trees into the United States have not been explained to the public. There is no way to guarantee that non-native species are free of harmful diseases and insects when they are imported because the host plants may exhibit no symptoms. Once on the loose, it is very hard, almost impossible, to bring the invasive species under control.

The most valuable tree in the eastern U.S. from both a wildlife and commercial timber standpoint — the American chestnut — was almost totally eliminated by the blight from Japanese chestnut trees imported a century ago for the ornamental nursery trade.

This type of disaster has been repeated over the past 100 years with sudden oak death disease, Japanese beetles that entered on Asian nursery stock, the greening disease besetting citrus in Florida, and the soybean aphid that arrived on Asian buckthorns for the ornamental trade — to name just a few.

The staggering price tag for damages caused by invasive species is estimated at over $100 billion per year. Furthermore, 85% of the invasive species have been brought into the U.S. by commercial nurseries. These nurseries suffer no economic consequences for having marketed such exotics that “go astray” and cause millions in damages.

How Would Landscaping Change in a Steady State Economy?

A key feature of a steady state economy is sustainable scale — the economy fits within the capacity of the ecosystems that contain it. Achievement of sustainable scale requires us to value ecological resources and the services they provide. There is a huge opportunity to generate such value by shifting how we manage the landscapes that surround our homes and buildings. Steady state landscapes would enhance biodiversity, improve air quality, and provide food for birds and other wildlife.

Gardening with native species is part of the paradigm shift. The massive harm that accompanies today’s unsustainable landscaping with exotic ornamentals is not reflected in economic calculations. Externalization of such harm would not be part of a steady state economy — an economy that values environmental resources today and in the future.

Professor Douglas Tallamy at the University of Delaware argues in Bringing Nature Home that unless we restore native plants to our yards, the future of biodiversity in North America is dim. Tallamy calls on the public to reevaluate its centuries-old love affair with alien ornamentals and to reverse the practices of the lawn and garden industry in order to provide food for wildlife.

People frequently ask me about tangible actions they can take to move us to a healthier planet. One major opportunity for many is to focus on their own yard or work with their local schools or businesses to shift to landscaping that is a positive force.

If you want to bring back birds and butterflies, you need to have the native vegetation where they can complete their life cycle. In addition to shelter from predators and nesting sites, birds need insects, not seeds or berries, to feed their young. Professor Tallamy asserts: “Birds will not be in our future if we provide them only with shelter and nesting sites.”

What a remarkable result would occur if the $45 billion currently spent on lawn care that degrades biodiversity and causes significant pollution were instead devoted to attractive native landscapes teeming with life!