Monday, November 25, 2013

A Year of Blogging Cautiously

It was a year ago today I embarked on a blog which I hoped would provide ‘hunches’ of ‘possibilities’ that might move us closer to a vision of a better world. A world that I noted then aligned with Martin Luther King’s aspiration that “The arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice.” 

I was surprised that in that time I have shared 119 hunches, inspired by numerous authors, citizens, events, and serendipitous encounters of all kinds. I began that blog with a reference to some young children I had met the previous summer in Burkina Faso and how their own capabilities were constrained by poverty.

 I am pleased to note that at least on one level, with the generous help of many friends we have helped launch a social enterprise that will address the issue of safe water for some of those families. But this seems hardly enough from where I sit, privileged as I have been. I’ve already exceeded the average  life expectancy of a Burkinabe by nearly a decade!

So while I intend to keep sharing ‘possibilities’ I stumble upon this year that hold some measure of hope for shaping a better present and future for all, I’ll also be nudging us all, myself, most notably, to actually do some things that might improve the conditions for others in the short and long-term. I’m not sure what that looks like from this vantage point, but we’ll see where the intention takes us.

As I begin this second year of blogging, less cautiously, I suspect that my glances will continue to be in the direction of building a different economic system, a more democratic practice, and exploration into our relationship with our natural world.Who knows how this year will evolve.

Thanks for considering the pieces appearing on this site and may they offer you some useful morsel to assist you in aligning your own aspirations and talents to what our world needs from us in the coming year.

Film at 11:00…

Thursday, November 21, 2013

We Can Do Better - We Can Be Better

That phrase, 'we can do better' has been finding its way into my consciousness more and more of late. I believe it can be applied to every social ill facing the human family. It can be the starting place for conversations around any issue that divides us. For who doesn't want their situation to be better? The tricky part is understanding how we all define better in our shared boundaries (however defined). And then, of course, even if the direction is agreed upon, the path to get there will conjure up different ideas.

But the thought alone 'we can do better',  is only an unfulfilled aspiration. Perhaps, but I believe that it is a primary and necessary intention that must proceed any positive change. Well maybe MUST is too strong, as we might occasionally stumble into positive change.

Without that essential conscious thought, there is little impetus to change anything in our life or world. Yet, I sense around us a wet blanket of dis-empowerment that snuffs out such consciousness and therefore our aspirations. Now the flip side of this thinking of course is the Pollyanna approach -- that things will just be OK, no matter what I do or don't do. But that too is dis-empowering in the sense that it removes any responsibility for change from our shoulders.

These observations seem just as true to me, whether we're talking about climate change, war, poverty, or any other social ill facing our human family as well as to our own individual aspirations for self-improvement. Thus the linking of the 'can do' with the 'can be' in the title of this blog. I keep wondering that if I could make this a daily, if not hourly, mantra in my own life, how that might transform how I live - aligning myself more closely with aspirations that I have failed to achieve, as well as how those changes might then reverberate beyond the boundaries of self?

Everything I know tells me this is true. Yet, I know I often let myself off the hook of 'being' better by excusing my shortcomings on personal weakness or hardened habits, or that the change is just so insignificant it won't matter to anyone if I don't make it. Who will notice besides me? And with a memory and attention span as short as mine, it will be removed from consciousness shortly anyway.

But we know there are memories that are not conscious that our body/mind uses without thinking - consider walking, driving a car, putting a fork of food into our mouths, etc. These were all learned. We now do them without much thought. So if we could simply start the day with that simple thought 'we can do better, we can be better', and we practiced it daily, and maybe eventually hourly, would after some length of time, maybe a year, could we shift not only our disposition, but ultimately our actions, both personally and socially?

Lord knows there is so much that needs improvement around us and in us. Surrendering to the forces that are driving selfishness, winning at all costs, concentrating power, etc. is not an aspiration I have ever been inclined to follow. I doubt if anyone else has either. So starting now, let's do better. We can.

 See you on the path...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fundamental Questions To Build a New Economy


Picking up where I left off in my last post, I'd like to share some excerpts from the Green Economy at Community Scale report I mentioned. In it economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor try to begin with a set of questions that should help design an economy that works for all.

  • How is enterprise to be organized?
  • How is labor to be employed?
  • What is the structure of investment?
  • What kind of financial systems are appropriate?
  • What sort of government structures are relevant? (p.13)
The answers to these questions would offer 'first principles' about the organization of economic activity.

They offer "three core concepts which form the foundations for a green economy:
  1. Prosperity itself: the pursuit of human well-being lies at the heart of the economy; it motivates economic activity and justifies economic output.
  2. Biophysical boundaries within which economic activity must take place. Economic activity which undermines the ecological assets on which prosperity depends is unsustainable.
  3. Social justice - prosperity which provides only for the few and fails to alleviate the plight of the poorest, where there is a clear mismatch between effort and reward, or where opportunities for advancement are restricted unfairly, diminishes the quality of society and eventually leads to social instability. (p.21)
Jackson and Victor then systematically review each of these components and offer both analysis and examples of what they believe exemplifies possibilities at the community level.

Let's look at what they say about investment.

Conventional investment strategy is a crucial part of the architecture of the unsustainable economy and offers little in the way of a reliable basis for the green economy...The green economy cannot simply be characterized as "more of the same with a smattering of clean-tech investments thrown in."  ...

...The overarching visions emerges in the form of three simple principles:
  • Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings --  now and in the future.
  • Enterprise concerns the organization of economic services which deliver the capabilities we need to flourish.
  • Investment is the process of setting aside income in the present in order to maintain, protect, and enhance the assets from which future prosperity will flow.
The broad aim of this portfolio is to build and maintain the physical assets through which individuals can flourish and communities can thrive -- with as little in the way of material throughput as possible. (pp.39-40)

Adding to Jackson and Victor's  efforts to refocus our investments, Michael Shuman,
 who has been a leading force in helping focus on LOCAL community development through his books Going Local and the Small-Mart Revolution and most recently Local Dollars, Local Sense has recently shared

 Twenty Four Ways to Invest Locally

 What Jackson and Victor are sharing with us is a map of the territory, pointing out the hazards to avoid as well as the possible routes to prosperity. They have spent years studying that landscape and perhaps there are no better guides to our way forward. We should at least listen closely to their advice before we break camp and head out to the unknown.

We'll get back to the fossil fuel investments shortly -- just gt a pile of stuff sent to me from the SRI in the Rockies conference from last month... film at 11

Friday, November 15, 2013

Time for Really Balancing the Budget

There has been an increase of late in letters to our local paper calling for a national balanced budget amendment. The fact that they have appeared in clusters suggest a campaign by some entity. For the most part these letters express the sentiment that not only is government spending at the root of all of our problems, but that government itself is the problem. So the inferred hope of the authors is that by shrinking spending, we can shrink government. I infer this because none of the letters suggest raising revenue to balance budgets

Now I suspect that some of the letter writers actually believe this simplistic myth – that if government balanced their budgets all would be right in the world. But the evidence is startlingly in contrast to that myth. Most states and many communities have balanced budgets and many of them are communities that are failing on many levels – economically, socially, and environmentally. Others like Detroit are not working from a balanced budget because revenues are far below what even the minimum required services for a livable city require. Does one really think that cutting expenditures further in Detroit, Flint, Battle Creek, Pontiac will make those communities stronger?

But let me now defend the balanced budget idea from a different and deeper perspective. Almost universally, talk of balanced budgets come from those who want to shrink government’s role or at least think that a budget for a locality, state or nation is like a personal checkbook, where we spend only what we have on account. Of course, these same folks almost universally use credit cards, these days more than they use checkbooks, but that analogy doesn’t support their notion austerity for government. So the typical narrow idea of balanced budgets can be framed in different ways.


So here’s a new, and I would argue a more sustainable way to frame this issue. Since we humans require oxygen, water and food to exist. And since we receive these gifts from the unique attributes of this planet (at least in this solar system). It would seem to follow that accounting for the health of those necessary attributes and ecologies for life would be a fundamental element of any budget we might be trying to balance. What science continues to uncover is the evidence that we have  spent the interest of billions of years of evolution of the biological health of this living system and we are now spending down the capital itself. Of course, this robs the future of opportunities that we’re fortunate to have enjoyed. Through our profligate consumption we have become spendthrifts, especially those in the so-called developed world. (The U.S. for example with 4 percent of the global population uses more than 20 per cent of its energy, and has for many years).So we need to get that spending under control first.

Secondly, we need to account for the social well-being and harms that exist. Prioritizing the economy over the social and environmental health of the planet is putting the cart before the horse.  For the economy is a human tool created to provide for social well-being, not the other way around. A good metaphor is that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and society, although our current economic gospel inverts that reality. The increasing inequality in opportunity, power, and well-being  both domestically and globally are clear signals that the current economic system has been overdrawn and moving towards bankruptcy.

So if we are really concerned about balancing budgets  then the revenue and expenditures must include the ecological systems and the social systems. To continue to leave out those line items, would be like taking out the Defense department expenditures out of the budget sheets as if they didn’t exist, even while we fight wars, maintain military bases, run surveillance programs, etc. The budget might look like it was balanced on paper, but we know in reality it wouldn’t be. And the future debt payments for this absurd accounting would be paid by our children and grandchildren.

I know this analysis is incomplete and there is much more nuance than can be accommodated in a short piece like this. But the main point is if the frame we use to address the challenge is wrong, the chance that the solutions that we create will bring us to a suitable outcome are doubtful at best. We must face the fact – the natural world must be protected. Climate destabilization from human activity is just a single symptom that our economic system is out of kilter.

Fortunately there are plenty of economists, scholars, citizens around the world exploring different approaches that understand this reality. Under these various labels they are creating possibilities for a more sustainable future.

Whatever we call it, the orientation away from the singular pursuit of private profit over community and planetary well-being must be reined in. There is no silver bullet. Communities must determine their own course without harming the prospects for their neighbors, and in fact collaborate with their neighbors near and far. For ultimately there is only one real budget and one real future we share.


For one of the best, comprehensive, readable overview of possibilities, I heartily recommend this just released report, Green Economy at Community Scale, from two leading economists, Tim Jackson, from the UK and author of among other works Prosperity Without Growth and Peter Victor, from Canada and author of Managing Without Growth.

Let's balance the budgets that really matter for us all.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Citizens Income

The State of Alaska has been sending a check annually to every Alaskan resident. They don't have to do anything but live there, no strings attached. Similarly some economists have called for either a Basic Income, Universal Guaranteed Income or sometimes what  is called a Citizens Income. Even Richard Nixon once proposed an across the board income for families with children that he called his Family Assistance Plan.


The idea of granting, unconditionally, income seems an anathema to most folks who have been raised to think that income must be related to work or labor (although people with wealth make sizable income just from their income). As we deal with growing inequality not just here in the good old USA, but in many nations, the Basic Income idea is getting more serious consideration. Before you pooh-pooh the idea consider these advantages to using a Basic Income to replace all the various welfare programs that could be retired with a Basic Income in place.

  • It would provide them with a financial platform from which they could choose the life they want to lead.
  • It would give them the independence to seek decent wages and conditions.
  • People would be able to leave a job that is unsatisfying, making way for others who want it instead.
  • People could avoid work that harms the environment.
  • Small-scale farmers and marginally viable businesses and cultural organizations could better survive.
  • Local shops within a community would become more visible.
  • The centralization of economic activity would be reversed, making it possible to curb the excesses of corporations.
  • Small-scale employers, and larger employers during the recession, would only need to top up the Citizen's Income and could therefore employ more staff.
  • There would be no need to produce unnecessary or short-lived products just in order to generate employment.
  • People would no longer need to adjust their behavior to maintain eligibility for the benefits; intrusive means testing would end; many perverse consequences of the current benefits and welfare system would end as people  realised their lives were in their own hands, not the dependency-creating nanny state.
  • People would feel more secure, not needing to amass excessive wealth for their old age or even to pass it on to their children. 
                                            (James Bruges, cited in Martin Large, Common Wealth: For  Free, Equal, Mutual and Sustainable Society, Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 2010 p.178)

For much more on the idea see Basic Income Earth Network or

 the U.S. Basic Guaranteed Income Network

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fossil Fuel Investment, the Tip of the Iceberg

While college students are pressuring many of their schools to divest from holdings in fossil fuel companies, there are collaborating efforts being launched by institutional investors by assessing the entire portfolio's carbon intensity, not simply fossil fuel holdings.. Companies that perform those assessments, TruCost, Bloomberg, and yes, even Bank of America - Merrill Lynch are getting lots of business as investors are beginning to see the possible calamities that climate change is threatening to unleash upon us.
 portfolios just released by the United Nations Environment Programme's Finance Initiative, sheds some light on the forces driving this movement. As I noted in an earlier blog, Pax World Fund has started this and gone even a step farther in seeking to make a carbon neutral fund.

Events like Typhoon Haiyan as noted below by Weather Underground's chief climatologist, Jeff Masters today, is perhaps just another reason the investing community is getting more interested in carbon intensity of their portfolios.

Extreme damage in the Philippines
With a preliminary death toll of 1,200, Haiyan already ranks as the 8th deadliest typhoon in Philippines history. The deadliest typhoon in Philippines history was Typhoon Thelma of 1991, which killed between 5101 - 8000 people, reports wunderground's weather historian Christopher C. Burt in his latest post on Philippines typhoon history. Haiyan will become the deadest typhoon in Philippines history if the estimates today of 10,000 dead hold up. Bloomberg Industries is estimating insured damages of $2 billion and total economic damages of $14 billion, making Haiyan the most expensive natural disaster in Philippines history. This is the third time in the past 12 months the Philippines have set a new record for their most expensive natural disaster in history. The record was initially set by Typhoon Bopha of December 2012, with $1.7 billion in damage; that record was beaten by the $2.2 billion in damage done by the August 2013 floods on Luzon caused by moisture associated with Typhoon Trami.

Figure 2. A Filipino boy carries bottled water amongst the damaged houses where a ship was washed ashore in Tacloban city, Leyte province, central Philippines on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)