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Sunday, March 22, 2009

OUR PLANET EARTH

Our mantra of continuous growth has left us on ecological brink


If print media are any indication, change is in the air. Readers are sourcing news in new ways, and newspaper sales are declining as a result.

But there is also a change in how writers are covering environmental and economic issues and the interplay of the two. A perfect storm is brewing and it's finally getting thoughtful coverage.

Critics, of course, would argue that journalists simply generate crises to stay employed. No bad news; no job.

However, at their best, journalists are canaries in society's coal mine, reacting to troubles before policymakers or the general public.

Admittedly, most financial correspondents didn't see the global financial collapse coming, but even the world's top economists were hit broadside.

"The former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has admitted that he was shocked to discover a flaw in the free-market model and has even begun talking about temporarily nationalizing some banks," Patricia Cohen wrote in a March 5 New York Times piece headlined "Ivory Tower Unswayed by Crashing Economy."

"Unquestioning loyalty to a particular idea is what Robert J. Shiller, an economist at Yale University, Connecticut, says is the reason the profession failed to foresee the financial collapse. He blames 'groupthink,' the tendency to agree with the consensus," explains Cohen.

Economists are not the only ones cowed into groupthink. Journalists, too, toe the line to stay employed. Still, there is a rising tide of mainstream journalists giving voice to opinions that not long ago would have cost them readers, if not their jobs. But even as strident voices defend business as usual — and the human and environmental exploitation this entails — wiser voices are speaking truth to nonsense, inexorably moving criticism of the status quo into the mainstream.

Two weeks ago, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote yet another "wake up people!" piece.

The column, headlined "The Inflection is Near?," asks a simple question: "Let's today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it's telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically, and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: 'No more'?"

If you're like me, your first question was probably, what's an inflection? Wikipedia explains: "In differential calculus, an inflection point (or inflexion) is a point on a curve at which the curvature changes sign. The curve changes from being concave upwards (positive curvature) to concave downwards (negative curvature), or vice versa."

I was not a calculus maven, but I understand the change from upward to downward, from positive to negative. In short, are the global economy and environment heading South in tandem?

Friedman continues with a simple example, but one that won't please China. "We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese. . . . We can't do this anymore," he writes.

A widely respected speaker and journalist, Friedman's best-selling books and columns consistently question the status quo. Not long ago, his opinions might have lingered on the fringe, but today I get e-mails from my conservative Republican friends saying, "This guy's onto something!"

One of the experts that Friedman cites is Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who is the author of climateprogress.com

Romm argues that we have all been duped into a global Ponzi scheme. "We created a way of raising standards of living that we can't possibly pass on to our children. You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior, but it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, 'This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate . . .' Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy," Romm told Friedman.

On his Web site, Romm develops the Ponzi analogy further. "In our case, investors (i.e. current generations) are paying themselves (i.e. you and me) by taking the nonrenewable resources and livable climate from future generations. To perpetuate the high returns the rich countries in particular have been achieving in recent decades, we have been taking an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all — a livable climate," he explains.

We have bought into a fantasy. The "greed is good" chant of the 1980s became the kinder, gentler "continuous growth is good" mantra; but the mentality is the same and it fueled Japan's infamous '80s bubble and last year's subprime mortgage crisis in the United States.

Those who were in Japan recall the bubble period as one of irrational exuberance times 10. It was followed by the ironically termed "lost decade" that was pretty darn comfortable for everyone here except the fuming financiers who lusted after 10 percent annual returns on their investments.

Yes, our greed is very good — for the likes of Bernie Madoff.

This mind set so permeates economics, politics and education, that we are all convinced: Endless economic growth, limitless production and unbridled consumption are our birthrights — even though we live on a finite planet.

Wondering if Japanese observers are equally concerned, I asked Junko Edahiro, head of Japan for Sustainability and president of e's Inc., what she thinks of Friedman's observations.

"Thomas Friedman is quite right. In Japan, because of the prolonged recession followed by steep and painful cuts in sales, profits and jobs, I think many people are beginning to sense that we are now entering a new regime where economic stimulus measures and other 'conventional' measures don't help us, rather they hurt us in a long run," Edahiro said.

"Global warming is just a symptom of a more fundamental problem, and unless we tackle that we cannot create a sustainable society even with advanced technologies," she added. "The deeper problem is that we humans are seeking infinite growth on a finite globe: This is the core issue. So it is obvious that we should rethink 'growth' and the purpose of our economic activities."

It is interesting to note that in a recent survey, Edahiro's organization, e's Inc., found that 80 percent of Japanese respondents approve of policies promoting the use of green energy, and more than 70 percent supported the government adopting a system of so-called feed-in tariffs — a system that aims to buy electricity from natural sources at a higher price, so helping to usher in alternative energy sources. (Visit www.es-inc.jp/en/reports090316.html for this and other reports in English.)

However, responsible change will require responsible journalism. Writers must interpret the nexuses of environment and economics so that readers come to understand that change is not just a catchy campaign slogan — it is crucial to the health and welfare of our children and our planet.

It's our Earth to husband or humble as we choose, and journalists — at least as much as anyone — will determine whether we make the right choices.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com


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