Friday, April 30, 2010

The Eco-Nomics of Eco-Activism

Have you ever noticed that the prefix, Eco, in Eco-Activism is the same as the prefix in Eco-Nomics. “Duh!”, you are probably saying, "but the Eco in Eco-Activism actually stands for Ecology. "

Well, economy and ecology are very similar words. The origins of the two words stem from the Greek words oikonomia for economy and from oikologia for ecology. The “nomia” in “oikonomia,” for economy, means management. The “logia” in “oikologia,” for ecology, means “the study of.”

The common Greek root word, or prefix, in both economy and ecology is “Oikos,” which means household or dwelling place. Thus, economy translates literally into “household management” and ecology translates literally into the study of houses, dwelling places or habitation. In Ecology we try and understand the household and in economics we attempt to manage it. However, the focuses of the two fields of study differ dramatically.

In Ecology, the dwelling place we are studying is the entire planet Earth. Ecology is a study of the whole system, called the biosphere, and attempts to study how different physical systems in the biosphere interact with each other. There are plant, animal, fungi and microbe kingdoms. These kingdoms exist in oceans, on land and in the soil, and in the atmosphere. Then there are various cycles that are studied in Ecology that track the movement of various Elements through the different kingdoms and systems in the process of living and breathing organism as they go through life from birth to death to decay. One such cycle is the carbon cycle that studies how carbon recycles through the entire system from plants to animals to soil and the atmosphere. Other important cycles studied by ecologists are the nitrogen and the sulfur cycles which study similar interactions between Earth systems including plants, animals, soil, oceans and atmospheres. All of these systems are contained in the biosphere that contains the entire cycle of life on our planet Earth and for the most part have been relatively stable over thousands of years.

Economics, which is the study of “household management,” has a much more narrow focus than ecology. Economics focuses on the human household and doesn’t account for how the human households interact with other life-forms on the planet.

Economics is split into two distinct fields, micro and macroeconomics. Microeconomics focuses on individual households and firms and their interactions in marketplaces. Microeconomics focuses on the choices households and firms make in markets. This is where we find the demand and supply curves describing different markets.

Macroeconomics studies our entire economy when all households and firms in the economy are added together. When looking at all the firms and households as they interact with each other in Markets, we can get snapshot views of the entire economy. This can tell us the size and the health of the economy through its size, which is measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP can be measured in a number of different ways.
First, it can be measured by the total revenue of all firms. Firms produce goods and services to be sold in the market for which they receive Revenue. The total revenue all firms receive is equal to GDP. Second, GDP can be measured by total household spending. Household purchase the goods and services produced by firms by spending in the market for goods and service.. Total household spending is equal to total revenue received by firms and is also equal to GDP. In economics we always balance our accounts and total spending by households has to equal total Revenue of firms. Likewise, in the market for the factors of production. The Factors of production are Land, labor and Capital. Households supply land, labor and Capital to be sold in the market for the factors of production. Households receive Income from this market. And so we come to the third way to measure GDP which is that total household income also equals GDP. Firms purchase the land, labor and capital from the market for factors of production and pay wages, rent and interest for each of these factors. The fourth measure for GDP is through adding the total wages, rent and interest paid by firms in the market for factors of production which also must equal GDP. Total household income is comprised of all wages, rent and interest received from firms and thus the two measures must be equal.

This picture of the economy is self-contained. By balancing all the accounts it appears that it is sustainable and can go on forever as the flow of goods and services and the flow of dollars circulate between households and firms and the market for Goods and Services and the factors of production. The place for ecology in this snapshot view of the economy is off in the corner in the factors of production where it is represented by an endless supply of Land or resources.

The way economists manage the entire household represented by the entire human economy is by making it grow. All this is fine and dandy as long the economy remains small in comparison to the entire household or dwelling place for all of Earth’s inhabitants. But when the economy increases in scale or size, it eventually starts having an impact on the ecology, or the larger household called the planet. Eventually, the size of the human economy begins to have dramatic impacts on the systems studied in ecology, such as the carbon cycle, and on other plants and animals.

If we wish to grow the economy, we have to use more resources. We are presently in the midst of a recession. Unemployment hovers around 10% and most forecasts don’t predict significant improvements in the unemployment rate this year and perhaps not until beyond 2011.

To grow an economy we have to increase GDP. Increasing GDP means more jobs for people and greater incomes. Many things can increase GDP including cleaning up after an environmental disaster such as Chernobyl, Bhopal or Exxon Valdez oil spill. The ironic thing about keeping our economy healthy is that the current crisis that we are experiencing from the large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion of an off-shore British Petroleum drilling site, will actually increase the size of the GDP. Cleaning up environmental messes produces jobs and puts people to work.

To put more people to work, we have to create goods and services to trade in marketplaces and this is impossible to do without using more resources or factors of production. We will need more coal, minerals, food, fossil fuels, etc. And from the increased use of these resources, in addition to producing more goods and services, we will produce more pollution, or what we call negative externalities in economics. These pollutants include greenhouse gases such as CO2. Thus the economy has a significant effect on the carbon cycle in the biosphere. As our economy grows we also destroy more habitat contributing to the disturbing increase in extinction rates we are currently facing on the home or dwelling place we call Earth.

Eco-activism pits environmentalists against economists. The dilemma we face is the tradeoff we make as a society between protecting the environment and growing the economy. Our economy requires us to use resources as a factor of production, so we need to manage the use of these resources in a more sustainable way

Sometimes we hear economists and politicians refer to the “Green” economy as an alternative to the traditional economy. The hypothetical green economy will produce less negative externalities, or pollution, and proposes a solution for how can we grow our economy without producing more carbon that contributes to greenhouse gases causing climate change or global warming. The only means for doing this is to use less fossil fuel. One way is to make our economy more efficient. We need to produce more goods and services using less factors of production, specifically fossil fuels. We could have a fleet of vehicles with higher mpg, more mass transportation and less use of personal vehicles, better insulated houses, etc. However, Hybrid and electric vehicles come with batteries made with heavy metal pollutants such as lead and mercury and will need to be recharged on the electric grid requiring the use of more coal to power our electrical power plants. For our electrical power-plants we can find substitutes for coal or fossil fuels that don’t produce carbon such as nuclear, wind and solar. However, each of these substitutes comes with a new set of pollutants that, in some cases, such as nuclear, may be even more harmful than the production of CO2.

What this shows us is that even a “green” economy doesn’t necessarily remove us from the tradeoff between protecting the environment and growing the economy. One of the most perplexing problems we face in the world today is how do we continue with our present lifestyles while allowing more people to join the standards of livings that are common in affluent developed countries around the world, such as the United States, how we can do this while protecting our environment from more harm.

An honest economist would tell you that we cannot, that we need a new model for “household management.” There is a tradition of this in economics. Economics used to be referred to as the dismal science, because Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo proposed such concepts as the law of diminishing returns and studied population growth in relation to a fixed set of resources. Malthus and Ricardo were answering social utopians of their day who proposed that human society could live in harmony with each other without all the poverty that existed in the world at the time. What Malthus and Ricardo did not predict or understand was the ability of the economy to grow.

The question we need to ask now is how much further can the economy grow and how much impact can the biosphere take in regard to the various cycles affected by the growing human economy. I think most of us know intuitively that we are near the limits of this growth.

Most economists today, however, are not in the tradition of Malthus and Ricardo. Instead, they believe in the Utopian vision of modern economics represented by the self-contained and sustainable system found in economic theory that demonstrates a healthy economy. Unemployment? No problem, grow the economy. There is debate for how we should grow economy among economists (should we increase government spending, or cut taxes? print more money or raise interest rates?).

A requirement for Eco-Activism should be to understand not only Ecology or the study of our dwelling place planet Earth, but also economics and household management. But, this also means expanding economics narrow focus of the human economy into a wider focus of the human economy in relation to all other living systems in the biosphere.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Last Nighmare

He thought he was waking in the night. There was an eerie quietness surrounding him and he felt chilled as if he had kicked the blankets off of him sometime during the night. His entire body was strangely numb and he could not seem to move his arms to reach the blanket and pull it back up over him. It was as if his arms were asleep from being pinned beneath him as he slept. Not only were his arms asleep, but also his legs and the rest of his body as he realized he could not turn over.

When he opened his eyes his first thought was that he must still be sleeping and that he was dreaming for it was not night, but daytime instead. The sun shone through drifting dust and particles in the air and he thought it must be mid or late morning. He seemed to be lying on a floor in a room or a building that was in shambles. There were bits of glass laid on top of brown tile in front of him and what looked like torn sheetrock in various sizes scattered throughout the room. There was a boy’s face turned toward him not too far away. His pleading eyes were looking directly at him. He face was covered in blood and his throat seemed to be ripped wide open. He could not hear any noise but his mouth seemed to be straining to say something or scream. His arms and legs appeared to be flailing uncontrollably for a few short moments and then they stopped. The boys eyes stayed locked on his own eyes, but his mouth suddenly closed and his face went slack.

Beyond the boy, he could see more blood and body parts. He was sure he was dreaming, now, but if he was, this was the strangest and the most realistic nightmare he could remember ever having. He was acutely aware of the silence in the room and his inability to move as well as the numbness and cold that fell over his entire body. He could see movement not too far away and someone crawling through the rubble beyond. Her face reminded him of his bistro at the coffee shop he visited each morning. As she crawled he could see her entrails trailing behind her and her breasts dangling by bits of skin and tissue and dragging on the ground beneath her. Her whole chest appeared to be ripped open and organs and large amounts of blood fell out beneath her body as she continued her agonizing crawl. She appeared to be screaming, but still he heard nothing. When she collapsed on the ground her body was still and she moved no more.

With great determination he tried to lift his head so he could see more around him, but his body would not respond to his commands. His view of the room remained the same and he could only sense the movement going on around him. There was a large twisted metal beam stretched out on the floor in front of him and he could imagine from the direction that it lay that it must continue across his body and that explained why he could not move. He had the sudden fear that he was paralyzed and he began to scream for help, but he could hear nothing come from his mouth. He was fully engulfed in silence.

The sky seemed to be open above him as the sunshine continued to drift in and out of the dust and floating bits of paper around the room. He could see more body parts strewn throughout the brown tile, sheetrock and shards of glass in front of him. There were several limbs and what looked like the back of a head separated from its body. There was what appeared to be a woman’s foot with painted nails covered in dust and spots of blood lying on a round black waitress tray as if it were being presented for dessert to diners.

Two feet shuffled through the rubble just beyond the fallen bistro. Slowly two arms came down and turned over the bistro and then the arms rose again and the feet shuffled on toward the boy. The arms came down again and then knees and a woman’s body and face came into view. She turned the boys face away from him and toward her and then she screamed, but again he heard nothing. She collapsed on top of the boy and protruding out of her back was a large piece of metal that looked like a piece of a window frame. Blood spurted from the wound in her back straight up in the air, six inches or more, in rhythmic waves, but slowly subsided and eventually, her body also became still.

He felt relieved that the boy’s eyes were no longer looking at him and he waited for the nightmare to end. He wanted to wake up, but the images surrounding him had appeared too vivid to be a dream and would not go away. He could recall having other dreams in the past where he was fooled into believing they were real, because of a similar vibrant, though he was sure less horrifying, imagery. He focused on the hope that it was a dream and waited to awake and move once more. But, in all of his memory he could never recall a nightmare that was this disturbing and chilling in its impact and he wondered what the meaning of it could be in relation to his life. Was the dead boy a symbol for his own childhood and the woman laying on top of the boy his own mother? Or, were they a symbol for his present life with his three children and wife. He felt a sudden urgency to wake and reach out for his wife lying next to him in the bed.

He wanted to run from his room to his each of his children’s bedrooms to see them resting peacefully in their own beds. He shut his eyes tight and waited, then slowly opened them and surveyed the same gruesome scene over again.

The dust and particles continued to drift in the air and the sun continued to shine bright between them. Suddenly, something large came into view several yards away. It was falling and appeared to be part of a wall. It hit the floor silently, but he felt the vibration through his cheek resting on the cold floor. A large plume of dust rose in front of it and slowly settled as the wall came to rest on the floor in front of him burying the bistro and the woman and child. The plume of dust and particles came toward him and then the sunlight was blocked out and he closed his eyes to shield them from the dust.

Seconds later he opened them and the room appeared darker, and the brown tile that lay in front of him was now covered completely in an inch layer of dust and he struggled to take a breath. There was still no sound, though he could sense that he was choking on the dust and wondered if he was dying.

Slowly the room turned and he could make out more of the sky and ceiling above him and then there was a man’s face staring in revulsion at him. He appeared to be screaming also, but again he could hear nothing. There was blood splashing against his face and on his clothes as if someone were spraying him with a squirt bottle or a squirt gun. Then, he realized that this blood must be coming from his own body and panic overwhelmed him. He wished, once more, that he would wake up.

He shut his eyes and then opened them again, hoping to see his room and his wife lying next to him, but the scene remained the same. The man’s face continued to scream as blood sprayed upon his face in spurts, silence continued to engulf him as the cold numbness remained over his entire body and the destroyed room with body parts and rubble scattered everywhere lingered on as dust particles floated nonchalantly through the air. And, then, as quickly as it began, the nightmare ended and he was dead.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Save for Retirement? ahh shit

I'm not that good with money. I can be impulsive even. Sometimes I might as well just throw it away. My relationship with money has never been one of reverence. What's a dollar. Spend it on pleasure or to avoid pain. Fuck! you get much deeper into thinking about it and you might as well just call it quits. Money, Money, Money... I won’t bore you with all the details and instead will concentrate on my portion of the household income. My wife works too. She makes a bit more than I do. We keep our finances separate, but share household expenses. Anyway…

I make approximately $50K per year. I have approximately $62,000 in total debt from student loans. I contribute $1,100 per month toward the mortgage payment and other household expenses. I put $400 per month into deferred compensation for retirement. I’m 45 years old. I don’t presently have a car payment and I don’t have any credit card debt.

I am required to make payments for approximately $450 per month toward my student loan debt. I have limited misc expenses; mostly gas, gardening, a clothing budget, dogfood, entertainment, and other expenses. Let’s say I spend approximately $250 toward such personal misc. expenses.

My net paycheck each month, after deductions including deferred compensation is approximately $2300 per month. Minus $1,100 mortgage/household leaves $1200. Minus $450 leaves $850. Minus $250 leaves $600. $250 for personal expenses is very conservative, but let’s stick with it. Now, I want to pay off my student loans faster. $450 per month will pay the loans off in 30 years, approximately (I think I have been paying for approximately 3-4 years, so actually its about 27 more years). I’d like to take all $600 and put it toward my student loan debt. This would pay off all my student loan debt in under 10 years. But, I need to put some money into savings for an emergency. Plus, I’ll need to get a car some day. Plus, my son goes to a private school and each August we have to pay tuition for approximately $10,000 dollars. Any savings I have helps towards this payment. Once I get my student loans paid off that’s an extra $450 dollars per month. If my salary keeps going up on schedule, in 15 years or so I should be making a bit more money and taking home an extra $500 or so a month.

I think about this a lot. I keep track of my budget. I have begun making extra payments toward my student loans. My goal is to pay off the entire amount before I am 55. Then I can really begin to save for retirement. But my son is 8. He’ll be 18 then and getting ready for college. More debt. Damn, what is this all about?

I keep thinking I’ll be able to not work someday and really begin to live. Put more time in the garden and take more vacations. Go camping and hiking in the woods. I’ll have so much fun once I get my shit together and by shit I mean once my finances are in order. Fuckin’ A, this is really all bs. Who the hell am I foolin? . What kind of life is this? Pleasure and suffering. There is no escape, man – just pleasure and suffering and getting absolutely no where. There are no special insights. There is no understanding. Age reveals little if you walk the path laid out to us by those who pave the way. None of it makes any sense. Work until you die. Your money means nothing. Pretty sure this means they own us. Pretty sure this is some form of slavery. Pretty sure nothing much has changed. Pretty sure happiness is not related to paying all the bills, because they will never all be paid and if they are, somehow this won’t lead to fulfillment either.

What is the choice? There is no choice but acceptance and there is no way to persevere but to endure.

We Don't Need Better Teachers

There is a myth out there shared by almost everyone that what public education needs is better teachers. Either pay more money to attract better teachers or break the union to get rid of bad teachers. We don't need better teachers. We need a better public education system.

There was a recent announcement that Minnesota was not among the states chosen to receive Federal grants for education reform. Minnesota's application for the funding failed because of the state's lack of good policies supporting teachers, its inability to dump bad teachers, failure to place the best teachers where they're needed most, and the inability to find faster ways to get teachers into the classroom. They also cited the state's inability to narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color, and questioned whether Minnesota has the political fortitude to implement changes.

The Governor of Minnesota said he will ask the Legislature to act on a bill that would make it easier for people to find "alternative pathways" into teaching, something he said would give the state "the ability to get the most highly effective teachers" in the classroom, while labeling Minnesota’s education system “a relic of the 1940s.”

If only it were so.

If you believe our world is screwed up, and if you ever wonder what the hell is matter with this country, then you need look no further than our education system. Our education system does not need reform. It certainly does not need better teachers. Our education system needs to be completely dismantled. Public education is not just broken, it is seriously diseased. It is a cancer that is affecting the minds of all of us.

What the hell am I saying, here?

Let me back up a bit. I am a product of public education. There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of public education. But, we no longer have any idea of what public education is supposed to accomplish. There is not a unified vision for what Public Education should do and who it should benefit.

There is a belief out there, which many of us share, that Public Education is responsible for our Country’s successes, our innovations and our failures. We believe that when we fall behind other countries in certain economic indicators, we can make up this loss of ground by improving our education system and hiring better teachers. This belief is at the core of the repeated mantra by self-serving politicians, both democrats and republican, that we need to improve our public education so the US can compete with other developed and developing nations. We need to improve math and science scores so we can compete. Reading has to improve so we can compete. We need better technology introduced into the class room so we can compete. Our schools are failing to prepare our children to compete in the global marketplace. So, I ask, how did we get so screwed up? How did our priorities become so twisted?

Math and Science is fine. There has never been a shortage of individuals who are good at math and science. The same goes for reading, history, geography, spelling, auto mechanics, theatre, philosophy, chess playing, knitting, athletics, carpentry, farming, steel work, painting, sculpturing, musicianship, etc. Human beings come in a wide variety of aptitudes and skills.

Why are we so fixated on math and science? I love math and science. I was always good at math and science. I am neither an engineer, doctor, information systems tech, nor a physicist. Math and science have been good to me simply as a pursuit of interest. I know other people who love building things, or history or painting. Public education should not be an institution devoted to one skill over any other. Public education should be devoted to developing citizenship and for it to succeed it has to be developed locally and not through federal initiatives.

There might be a small component of Public Education that emphasizes the federal or national citizenry over the state or local components of education. US citizens share some thing in common that could be addressed through public education. For that matter, Global citizens also have things in common that should be addressed in public education, too. But, by far the greatest emphasis should be on the local community and providing education for students that helps sustain the community and doesn’t rip it apart. What are the economic opportunities within the immediate area of the Public School? What can a student do for work or a living, which will help sustain the community after he or she graduates? We should not be teaching self-interest in schools and focusing on where the student can go to earn the largest wage. Often this means providing the only means for making a living available to most students in the United States upon graduation from our public schools, and that is the through the participation in the US military. This does not sustain the community, but rather tears it apart as it attempts to mend the few who do return to the community, which suffer psychological scars inflicted through wars fought abroad.

This is the reason for the emphasis upon better teachers at the expense of better schools controlled by members of communities. Look, I’d like to be able to dump bad teachers too. But, what is a bad teacher? A teacher whose kids score poorly on math and reading tests? A teacher that falls asleep in front of the class while kids are doing homework? A teacher who is physically or verbally abusive to students? A bad teacher can be anyone of these things depending on the standards. My point is, in most respects, communities should set these standards. I don’t want state or federal governments stepping in and demanding a teacher be removed for failing to meet the state or federal standard if this teacher is considered by the community to be meeting its own standards. Community standards should come first.

If Public Education is going to work it needs to break the bonds of state control and return control to the local communities. Public Education does not need better teachers. It needs better citizens and examples. It does not need teachers who have received accreditations through Public institutions, but rather teachers that are valued members of the community to provide mentorship and examples of citizenship that give back to the community. Public Education does not need federal dollars as much as it needs community support.

People don’t want there tax dollars paying for Public education, because they don’t look at the occupants in the local schools as assets to the community. Rather, the students and teachers are thought of as liabilities. They are drains on the economy and the community would be better off without them. Public schools are thought less of than Public Correctional facilities, as far as their economic worth to local economy.

For this to change Public schools have to be returned to the community and local people have to see how young people and children can benefit the community now and in the future. There has to be a history of local graduates becoming valued members of the community for communities to embrace their Public schools. Public Schools cannot be tools for generating individuals who can compete in the global marketplace. Public Schools need to switch emphasis from developing individuals who can compete in the global market place to developing citizens who are responsible for sustaining their communities.

This is a simple concept that should be easily embraced by all, yet it is assured to be thought of as radical. Damn, it is freaking conservative to the core, and I’m a freaking liberal. But, it’s right. We do need a network of sustainable communities in this country. These communities need to work together. Communities do not need to be antagonistic to state or federal interests. But, the individual community should still come first; otherwise there is no need for the community school. We might as well send all of our children away to boarding school to be prepared to live outside the community, while we watch our neighborhoods, towns, cities, counties, etc. crumble around us.

I will be so pleased if I never hear the call for better teachers again. There is nothing wrong with the teachers. It’s the schools - the Public schools. Take them back. Tell Obama and anyone else that wants to throw their two cents in that the school is your school and you, the community, will decide how best to run it. Those kids in the school are your assets for the community, not someone else’s; least which cannon fodder for our nation’s militaries. Don’t let them take your kids away or brainwash them into believing they have no responsibilities to their families and communities.