Economists Have Heads Up Ass

November 5, 2009

I’d like to discuss the terms with which economic debate and analysis is almost always undertaken. The catalyst for this particular essay was a discussion on NPR’s Morning Edition, October 29, 2009, between Steve Inskeep and John Ydstie. Inskeep and Ydstie were analyzing the latest economic growth figures and were questioning whether last quarter’s growth could be sustained. Despite some growth, the concern was whether, Ydstie put it, we “are on a path of sustainable growth.”

As an economic analysis, there was nothing extraordinary here. Given the standard terms of the debate and general assumptions of the dominant (or exclusive?) economic paradigm—in which continued growth is the norm with contraction being an aberration which needs remedy—this was entirely unexceptional and I have no opinion on the “truth” of the analysis if seen solely within the paradigm of permanent economic growth.

However, words like “sustainable” and “unsustainable” have significant and pressing meanings that extend beyond—that, in fact, question—the accepted terms of economic thought, analysis, policy, and debate. It is careless, irresponsible, and intellectually shortsighted not to consider the broader meaning of “sustainability.” Given NPR’s mission and function within our society, I expect better of it, which is why I have written numerous letters addressing this issue in one way or another.

When the standard economic question is asked, namely, whether current economic growth is sustainable, another, more significant question is elided and ignored: whether economic growth, itself, is sustainable. As a piece of bitter irony, the story that came after the one I’m addressing here was about global warming, as if to announce the underlying issue which was not, and is rarely, addressed. For the question of the true sustainability of economic growth may ultimately be an ecological question: can our planet and its ecosystems survive sustained economic growth? This is a somewhat euphemistic way of asking whether humans can survive sustained economic growth.

I believe we cannot. There may, I will admit, be validity to an argument that suggests that economic growth, in a post-industrial world, may be of the sort that does not need intensive energy, or that alternative, renewable and non-carbon emitting, energy sources will provide the energy needed for economic growth. I believe that such arguments have crippling weaknesses and omissions, and would point to the simple fact that up until this point, economic growth has always been accompanied by increased consumption of fossil fuels. Future economic growth, I believe, not only depends on an endless supply of cheap energy, but will also increase carbon emissions for as long as our supply of fossil fuels lasts. Nevertheless, I still believe that a debate is worth having.

However, there is no such debate. That we may have to devise an economic system that is not wholly dependent on permanent and continued growth is, apparently, a forbidden topic. Whether it is too scary or threatens too many entrenched interests, the questioning of the economic growth is entirely absent from all mainstream media. Perhaps this is the case because we so fully rely on economic growth even to maintain something of a status quo. A lack of economic growth does not simply mean that we will all have to make due with a little less. This addiction’s withdrawal is far more painful. The system seizes up, credit freezes, jobs are lost. Our economy is like a bicycle—easy to balance when moving but nearly impossible to keep upright when at a standstill. This is something worth considering as we are running out of road. We are in dire need of a broad discussion of the potential unsustainability of sustained economic growth.

G20 Will unthinkingly call for more consumption!

September 23, 2009

This is an expanded version of a letter I sent to NPR after a report on the goals of the G20.

I feel exasperated at the way world economic news is reported without any interrogation of what appears to be an unquestioned assumption in the current economic paradigm: that consumption and growth are inherently good. I refer specifically to today’s story on the G20, in which the goal to get China and Germany to save less and consume more is “necessary” to world economic growth.

Does anyone not ever question the long term ramifications of the principle of economic growth? Can our planet’s eco-systems sustain this sort of growth, and for how long? Setting aside global climate change how many years of growth can our supply of fossil fuels support? Is it not a troubling sign that what, specifically, is consumed is of no import within this paradigm, as long as consumption, any consumption(?), takes place.

True enough, the world economic situation, as currently understood and calculated, would indeed improve if people in Germany and China bought worthless crap made from fossil fuels and immediately threw it away. But it is madness that a system in which waste and destruction is not only good, but necessary is so entirely taken for granted. A delicate ecological system, for instance, collapses under the force of this sort of contradiction. Are we so far removed from this sort of system that the standard rhetoric of economist and economic reporting remains unjarring to us? If economists have no ear for this stuff, if they are tone deaf to any unquantifiable factors (or ones whose tally can’t be immediately charted and graphed), then NPR has a responsibility to step in. What about a story about, even any mention of, the ecological limits of economic growth, or of Peak Oil?

This will be one of the fundamental concepts of the next generation. Isn’t anyone going to start talking about it? Are we so committed to and indebted to economic growth that questioning the very concept of it remain inconceivable? Unless someone helps put these ideas into a national dialogue, we will be subject to these unflinching calls for consumption, unfettered by any meaningful thought about consumption.

Breaking News from The Victory Garden Initiative Foreign Correspondant

August 26, 2009

Europeans Have Adopted the Practice of Victory Gardening

While traveling in Croatia, your intrepid international victory garden reporter has discovered European Victory Gardens. Apparently they have heard the news and are following our brave leadership. It appears that a number of local residents have actually taken to planting vegetables, as well as fruit and nut trees in their own back yards.

See in this picture hapless American tourists enjoying a lunch which actually contains local, back-yard grown tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Lunch was completed with a number of aperitifs distilled in the gardener’s own cellar distillery. Rumor has it that the wine was also homemade from backyard grapes!

This trendy (ex-hippy, no doubt) backyard gardener has worked out an elaborate system of season extension, including what must be some sort of high-tech mail-order hoop house.

In Boska, on the island of Krk, this reporter also discovered several front yard gardens! Apparently they have had time to grow a variety of vegetables and fruits, including a good looking crop of grapes in between the local government’s stamp-down and eradication of forbidden front yard gardens, which certainly must violate local ordinances in this upscale tourist destination.

Back in Zagreb, your fearless reporter heard some faint clucking sounds. It appears that Croatia’s capital city has finally passed an ordinance allowing residents to raise chickens in their own yards! And we thought that Eastern Europe was backwards and behind the times!!

More soon from your victory garden chief foreign correspondent.

On Health Care Reform

August 15, 2009

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intesity.

-W.B. Yeats

On Bottles

August 7, 2009

Glass bottles apparently have very little value.  Consider the way we throw them away with little thought, sending them off to a hole in the earth somewhere—or, on a better day, have them hauled here and there so that they can be ground up and made into new bottles.  So easy must it be to make new bottles that it is deemed better to smash them up and remake them!

 

But look at a bottle with fresher eyes, momentarily unaccustomed to our disposable culture.  A bottle is a miracle of technology and energy, a thing of beauty.  It is smooth.  It is carefully, even gracefully shaped and colored.  Though breakable, its durability is impressive.  Consider the accumulated knowledge that goes into the manufacturing and transporting of a bottle, knowledge collected and passed down for thousands of years.  From the first realization that sand could be melted into such wondrously smooth and transparent stuff, to the automated and computer driven facilities that effortlessly produce rows of these glistening containers, it would be possible to trace nearly every technological discovery made by humans since we began our conquest of the earth.  We see the taming of fire, experimentations with chemical compounds, the harnessing of fossil fuels—first coal and then oil—to the invention of the micro-chip.  Such effort and value that has been synthesized into this common and now almost valueless object, this thing now worthy of almost no consideration!

 

This indifference to the intellectual and physical toil of our ancestors is regrettable, for it locks us into a dangerously entitled myopia.  We fail, for instance, to remember that a bottle would, for a majority of humans who have walked our earth, be the most prized and useful possession (remember “The God’s Must be Crazy”).  Think what you can do with a bottle; consider its countless crucial and basic functions.  For this majority of our brothers and sisters, a bottle would have been of great, perhaps sacred value, and its willful destruction or neglect would likely have been a crime or an affront to a God.

 

With abundance, of course, comes the devaluation of many things, perhaps every thing.  There are scores of bottles in my house right now.  It is hard for this not to diminish their value.  More come into the house than I could ever have use for.  Too many bottles is a far greater threat than not enough.  But attitude and ideology are also significant.  The mania with which we buy and destroy has increased significantly during my 40 (something) years, even as we collectively and increasingly pay some sort of ritual homage to the “environment.”  When Reagan made a religion out of our growing tendency to buy and destroy, when he declared it our right, the foundation of our goodness, there was an acceleration in the devaluation of everything and thus the carelessness shown towards all the miracles of technology which overflow our homes and spill out on to the streets where we leave them so that they may be whisked away by uniformed men in large yellow trucks.

 

Consider this simple example: 20 years ago as a college student, part of our weekend ritual, our preparation for the new round of festivities, was returning last week’s case of “empties.”   The long-neck bottle was a feature of college life.  It seems a sensible system.  Wash, refill, and recap a bottle over and over again.  But apparently our need for convenience, and the determined efforts of our world’s brightest minds, made it more “economical” to grind them up and remake them.  This is stunning.  The ease with which a bottle can be destroyed and remade renders the action of carrying a 10 lb box of bottles from your dorm room (past the RA), to the car, back to the store, unnecessary and obsolete.  So good are we at the process of melting and recasting that we don’t even expect or accept this minor delay in our daily rush.  The energy with which a new bottle can be made is apparently so cheap that it overrides the smallest sort of demands on an individual’s attention, memory, and planning.  As our personal electronics reveal, we are a people who refuse to be encumbered and we have the technology to insure that we aren’t.

 

All of this is naturally dependent not only on the accumulated knowledge and technological expertise of our species, it also depends on the cheapest, most concentrated kind of energy.  If we didn’t have machines to carry, crush, and make anew all our stuff, we would certainly value it differently.  This concentrated energy is of course finite and quickly being used.  Apparently humans are not wired or trained to consider finitude and future scarcity when overwhelmed by current abundance.  But at our juncture, now, things are becoming a bit more focused.  Perhaps it is time to reconsider and revalue our bottles, and everything else we treat with such neglect and indifference.

 

So where can we start?  Here’s a simple proposal, but one that might encourage a wider revaluation.  Why not petition our local breweries to bring back the returnable long-neck bottle and eventually boycott those who don’t?  While this won’t in and of itself allow us to extend, significantly, our diminishing energy resources, perhaps this extension is not really the point.  We need, today, a revolution of expectations, which is also at the same time a revolution in values (in the broad sense) and thus of value (in the narrow economic sense).  It may be small and symbolic, but let us cherish and protect our bottles and return them safely to our Sprechers and Lakefronts!

How history may view us

August 4, 2009

Some day our culture will be condemned for being negligently brief.

Thanks

June 18, 2009

This post refers to the  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel front page article on the CSA.  I owe thanks to many people, including my CSA subscribers who I address here.  The link for the article is:  http://www.jsonline.com/business/47001727.html

Hi CSA,
 
As many of you may have seen, Community Growers and our CSA got front page coverage on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel a week and a half ago.  I want to thank all of you.  This could not have been done without you.  The roof-top farm is Community Supported Agriculture in the most literal sense. 
 
We need to work hard and fast as a community to question where are food comes from and how it is grown, while, in the face of global climate change and peak oil, finding increasingly local ways to grow food.  Perhaps the most important political statement each and everyone of us makes, and makes daily, is what we buy.  I am honored that you chose to buy Community Growers roof-top produce.
 
Thanks!
 
Erik

June 5, 2009

Roof farmer has been busy roof farming.  June is a miracle of growth (weeds included).  Here’s this week’s update to the CSA:

Hi All,

 
Here’s the latest from the farm.  The bad news is the cold weather is holding back some of the early summer crops, like beans, carrots, beets.  They’re coming along, but just need a bit more time.  The good news is that the cold weather is lovely for lettuce and other greens.  I wish we could start adding more variety, but its still mainly salad makings. 
 
Looking ahead, the tomatoes and squash are already starting to set fruit!   They benefited greatly from their early start in the hoop houses.  It may be a while yet, depending on weather, but a big crop is on its way.   I also think I saw the first Jalapeno pepper today.
 
Here’s some ideas for the cooking greens you’ll be getting (we never cooked greens before last year, but out of “necessity” discovered how good they can be).  These greens will include Swiss chard, Kale, turnip greens, beet greens, and maybe some mustard greens.  They can be combined with all sorts of things, including bacon or sausage, but are also good with garlic and onion and whatever else you can imagine.  Last week, we  mixed them with canned tomatoes (from last year’s harvest), red beans, cilantro, garlic, and rice.  It was a yummy combination.  Start by sautéing the greens in some olive oil until they turn darker green and wilt.  Then add just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, and cook until they achieve the tenderness you want.  There are also a lot of great recipes to be found on line.  Greens are also great in soups.  Part of the pleasure of eating locally is discovering new ways of preparing what is in season.
 
Cheers,
 
Erik

Broccoli is Hard to Grow

May 9, 2009

At least for me, onthe roof. 

The Problem with brocolli, is that it is a cool season crop, but it takes a fairly long time to mature.   Last year I put my transplants into their raised beds in early to mid April.   The seemed to grow fast, big, and hardy.  But by late June or early July when they began to develop their heads, the temperature of the soil was often above 80 degrees.  I tried to cool things down with shade-cloth, but the ambient temperature of the roof (it was a hot June, too) overwhelmed any coolness the soil might have retained.  On the roof, the soil will be the same temperature as the air, or warmer, as the roof  surface can go well into the 100’s–hot enough to burn skin.

I am devoted to brocolli.  When my wife and I used to get our veggies primarily from the grocery store, we ate brocolli almost every night.  One way or another, I determined, I would grow good roof-top brocolli.   So I started my seeds inside in mid-January, and planted good sized seedlings in the middle of February.  This brocolli would not suffer from over-heating. 

About two weeks ago the first  tight heads began to form and grew steadily larger and fuller.  But about a week ago something else happened.  Instead of growing large and tight, the earliest ones began to open and spread.  They was about to flower, even though the soil temperature dips into the 50s at night, rising to the 70’s, only, during the day.  Perfect brocolli growing temperatures.  What happened?

Apparently prolonged exposure to cold weather can cause brocolli to flower prematurely, to create “buttons.”  While still tasty, unlike the heat-caused bolting, these were paltry looking little sprouts–the brassilica version of Charlie Brown’s Christmast  tree.  I included them in the CSA boxes this week.  I hope my subscribers  remember the experimental nature of my project as they nibble on these gangly little guys.

The good news is there is another round of brocolli, about 2 or 3 weeks behind this one, just starting to form its heads.  They look tight.  They didn’t suffer the cold nights of February.  Perhaps they will grow large and tight.

Early Season Lessons

May 6, 2009

We’re now entering the 5th week of our CSA season.  This is very early for Wisconsin, as the terrestrial farmers are still as much as 4 weeks away from their first installment.  Despite what is in many ways a successful attempt to extend the season, I am concerned about the lack of variety.

 

My subscribers have enjoyed a decent quantity of lettuce (5 types), arugula, spinach, endive and escarole, Swiss chard, and kale (sweet, wonderful, kale).   They have also received approximately 2 radishes each.  If our own salads are any measure, the quality has been good.  Greens grown in this time are sweet and tender.  We are a month or more away from the first danger of a hint of bitterness.  Heat may be a greater challenge on the roof than cold. 

 

But I need to find a way to increase the variety and that is what I’ve been noodling on the last few days.  Certainly I can do better with overwintering some carrots and green onions, but what else?  I planted a lot of radishes, but the ones first seeded did not develop bulbs, even though they were a winter variety.   How early can peas be started, even in a greenhouse type setting?  They tolerate the cold, but the germination and early growth is so slow that the later ones soon catch up.  My attempt to start beans early was a bust, with very low germination rates.  Some of the ones started later and in the greenhouse-free area seem to be ahead.  Broccoli doesn’t like the heat, for sure.  But it also doesn’t seem to like the cold (more about that in future entries).  The cabbage is plodding along, but without any sense of urgency.  What about beats?  What am I forgetting?  Green is the color of our movement, but give me more of the spectrum!

 

Eliot Coleman’s techniques (see The Four Season Harvest and TheWinter Harvest Handbook—which I have not yet read) are promising, but did not work on the roof as well as I had hoped.  Where I had expected to find some carrots this spring, I instead found rotting carrot mush.  I can do better next year simply by planting a few winter crops earlier in the fall (the basic notion is that they are established enough by the time deep cold and low light sets in that, despite their relative dormancy, they can still be harvested) and by putting some carrots inside the greenhouse area.  I need some asparagus, but the urgent constantly overrides the important and I have trouble finding the time or space for something whose first harvest is 3 years off.

 

Perhaps I need something more radical.  Geothermal heat in the boxes? Better heat retention strategies? Solar reflectors? Time, money, and roof-load limits all interfere.  For now.  What hard-won wisdom has my generation lost?  What new techniques are we going to discover?