Saturday, October 22, 2011

Passengers and Crew

Let's face it: there is something intrinsic to our sociopolitical and economic-environmental system that is failing consistently. Whichever the field of study, we see serious faults that prolongate or even worsen human life on the planet. Deteriorating public health, organized crime, lack of food and abundance of toxic agrochemicals, deforestation and overfishing, bankrupt pension funds, ineffective political leaders, corrupt public officials, irresponsible corporations, exorbitant fiscal deficits, etc.

In some areas we have transgressed the limits of decency. Bankrupt pension funds to treat with dignity the millions of "baby-boomers" that constructed the greatest United States there ever was and who have started to retire after a life of hard work is despicable. That some fiscal deficits require 50 years to be paid is an abominable injustice against our children and even against those yet to be born. That 100,000 people -mostly children- die every day around the world from a preventable cause is a sin regardless of your religion. That the oldest trees in the planet are wiped out for a short-term gain is a blunder we will pay for generations to come.

There seems to be no common thread between these phenomena, but I would like to propose there is. Although it is true the law was never enough to contain audacity and defiance of the human spirit towards creativity and creation skipping all obstacles to arrive farther, higher, deeper, until a few decades ago there used to be enough space for some to break the rules and discover new horizons. There was abundance of resources and Economics only theoretically referred to their limits. Demand was tiny compared to today's, as well as purchasing power. Life expectation was lower and global population was a fraction of the 7 billion we are today.

Globalization did not arrive all of a sudden. It was a gradual process which we adopted and adapted to in 50 years past. Since we landed on the moon we knew we were all on the same boat here on Earth.

Nevertheless, the new millennium made us think about the long term. According to present tendencies, where will we be in a thousand years? In a hundred? In fifty? And so we have come to the realization that we cannot continue on the same path because we will collapse if we do. The only way we can prevent a tragedy of cataclysmic magnitude -and, by the way, it is worth confirming that IT IS avoidable- is to arrive at global agreements to preserve what is essential of life on the planet and help the ecosystem regenerate itself.

Our ecological footprint must become positive very soon in order to revert the tendency we are on to allow the environment to flourish -us included. In fact, with us at the lead. As Marshall McLuhan once said: "There are no passengers on spaceship Earth; we are all crew."

The time has come for us to build a system of rules that is not pegged to money, because money is not a value, only a currency. And all the money in the world cannot recuperate all what has been lost from a planet that was perfect and unique in the universe as we know it.

We require values that are durable over time, simple to comprehend, intuitive, natural, pleasurable to adopt, and that distinguish its followers as the new leaders of tomorrow. As Émile Durkheim said: "when values are sufficient, laws are unnecessary; when values are insufficient, laws are unenforceable."

Friday, October 21, 2011

Leadership Crisis at the Core of our Conflicts

Human life has never been so resourceful. We produce more food than we eat (although it is consumed unequally); science and technology have brought us to an era of hyper-modernity unthought of only a quarter century ago; the flow and access of information is unlimited in volume and at near zero cost; entertainment is amusing and at the tip of our fingers.

Yet, humanity has never faced so many and so dire and complex crises in its history: disease and preventable death among children, armed confrontation and high homicide rates, discrimination towards women, people with different religious background, ideological clashes, environmental degradation.

Some people believe there are too many humans on the planet. Others think the planet could hold up to 18 billion humans if lifestyle was truly sustainable.

Meanwhile, I perceive a dramatic lack of leadership at all levels. That is no surprise. We have been brought up to follow others' leadership: a religious authority, a school teacher, a government officer, a boss. This has blinded us from our own, individual leadership. We practice it since we learn how to walk and we voluntarily choose in which direction to go and discover our Universe. But faster than we think, our leadership is shadowed by that of others. We must discover the leader within.

Perhaps the gravest problem is not being aware of the need to have collective leadership, which is not achieved by one person instructing what to do, but by many -all of us- moving in the direction of common interests. Like feeding the hungry, curing the sick, empowering women, accepting religious differences, restoring nature.

Our world is in urgent for solutions. We must have common objectives (perhaps the U.N. has already done an outstanding job at that), we must aspire to them, and we must understand the consequences of not doing so. Look around you. So much freedom to choose what to do with our spare time, buy the latest gadget, travel to a more remote tourist destination, be the first one to be entertained, has in fact enslaved us. Which is the greatest paradox of modern life: the more freedom we have, the more it enslaves us. And still, we have the same 24 hours per day our ancestors had, so it all seems to boil down to time.

And to virtue: how we use that time to serve the common good is a critical factor to prosperity. We can aspire at all the individual happiness we like, and to all the well-being for our family and relatives that we can, but this does not mean we are prosperous. Prosperity is the improvement in the quality of life of all life on Earth. We are seriously far from that. Once again, the bottom line seems to be ethics, or the lack thereof.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Planet made of Diamond

In recent weeks, the scientific community has congratulated itself for the discovery of a planet that is composed of a carbonic substance similar to what we know here on Earth as diamond. Not so fast, jewelers! It is 4000 light years away.

The method to confirm this discovery is the good old scientific method: observation, simulation, hypothesis, testing, confirmation, peer reviews by anonymous, qualified scientists. In the words of Dr. Matthew Bailies, it is likely to be the greatest scientific discovery of his career.

He very quickly shuns pride for the achievement and wonders why, if the scientific community and the specialized and general public are cheering for such discovery, is it not possible to be consistent with scientific discovery following the scientific method that proves, without reasonable doubt, that human behavior with the Earth's natural resources is causing a net negative impact on the world's ecosystem?

The question is pertinent. A group of scientists identify a body in outer space that would take 4000 years to arrive at if we traveled at the speed of light, but the samples collected for decades from all possible locations on our planet are disregarded as sufficient proof of anthropogenic interference -that is, caused by humans- in our ecosystem.

It may not be a matter of method. If we wonder what would happen if exhaust fumes from combustion engines would stay at surface level instead of flying kilometers up into the atmosphere, we would have gotten sick from them half a century ago and we would have probably solved the problem by now.

It may be a matter of belief. Some people choose to believe there is no anthropogenic climate change because they don't see it. Some others choose to ignore its existence or become indifferent to it because it would imply changing the comfortable life that at least 1 billion people on the planet (14% of us) have achieved through technology, energy, safety, market economies, food availability, health, entertainment, etc.

Unfortunately, it may also be a question of incentives: some people may be receiving monetary gains from the lifestyle and processes that are involved with human contamination of nature. I am almost sure that if my father was an important shareholder of a Big Oil Company I would find it more difficult to criticize pollution from carbon emissions and green house gases.

Which leads us to the field of ethics, that moral ground that we used to have and may have escaped this generation of new leaders that we are forming. More on this later.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Economic Value of Ecosystems and Biodiversity

The United Nations Environment Program hosts the international initiative of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), which shows the value of nature in economic terms.

Have you ever wondered what are the costs for the services that nature provides to humanity and other forms of life on the planet? Clean the air and water, allow for food to grow on fertile soil, even the availability of minerals and other natural resources that are consumed by humans and other species.

Keep in mind that oil is the result of a natural process through which decayed vegetation and other living forms have been compressed over millions of years to form the thick, energy-rich substance. It is provided by nature and it would take millions of years more to naturally generate more. In fact, humans cannot create oil from fallen trees.

According so some estimates, the global economy is about US$40 trillion a year, and nature represents about US$18 trillion a year. The cost of using nature is not being paid by anyone, which doesn't mean it is free. If we use nonrenewable natural resources, they are gone forever and that natural value is lost. If we, in addition, exhaust renewable resources, like fertile soil or trees, we are also reducing the value of nature permanently.

The problem comes when we think that, in the long run, we could be reducing the natural capital of the planet to the point where consumption is greater than production. At that point, we would be in what ecologists refer to "overshoot", or the impossibility of an ecosystem -in this case, the entire planet- to regenerate its biocapacity on its own in time for it to be used again. Well, according to the Global Footprint Network we have reached overshoot around 2005. Now we are reducing our natural capital every day that goes by.

Linking this ecological problem to the economy is important, because our global economy is not growing much more, while the ecological value has been decreasing. A paradigm shift requires that we think of ways in which we can transform the economy in a way that it ensures that our behavior will be restoring the ecosystem, allowing nature to restore itself.

That's what TEEB is all about. A promise -with sensible, clear numbers- of an economy that provides for the environment and an environment that provides for the economy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Effectiveness of #OccupyWallStreet

The heat is on. A movement that did not exist a month ago has become global. People from all walks of life are joining forces despite of different motivations they may have. Indignation and rage may come from unemployment, high education debts, loss of pension funds, lack of job opportunities for young workers. It can also be that indignation comes from the Too Big To Fail principle which led to the alleged injustice of "socializing debts and privitizing profits."

My concern is if this movement is aimed in the right direction. If the global economy is the greatest problem we have, or if there are other problems that require our immediate and decided attention. I refer to the natural environment.

Since 2005 we have been using more natural resources than nature itself can replenish, which means we are "eating" the interests and the principal. Unlike with finances, we cannot print more planet or devaluate it if we are running low on liquidity. We have what we have. Nature, as a matter of reminder from elementary school Biology lessons, cleans the air and water and fertile soil provides the food we eat. Hamburgers grow on soil.

If #OccupyWallStreet is a movement that is bonding people through rage with the world economy, I wonder how they will react when they realize what is going on with our global natural ecosystem. Not even the rich will survive in a world devoid of forests or fisheries or clean, free-flowing water.

My point is: gearing a global movement towards a paradigmatic change of our economy, failing to address the environmental issues as a top priority, is like being on a fire brigade fighting a fire and placing the ladder against the building that is NOT on fire.

Sooner or later we will find out that the economy is 100% linked to natural resources. Put first things first.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Telecom's Green Innovation

[Closing remarks at the Telecommunications conference held on October 11, 2011 at Ericsson offices in Tokyo, Japan]

Dear friends,

My mandate as Costa Rican ambassador is to establish links between my country and Japan to develop strong ties for green economic growth. I understand that green growth is where technology meets biodiversity and where business meets ethics.

It is evident in the world we live today that telecommunications play a fundamental role in the way societies coexist.

In this information age, it is still true that information is knowledge and knowledge is power. The difference is that, today, the information can be created by an unemployed person blogging from her house.

Some of you might not like Lady Gaga’s music, but she has almost 14 million twitter followers. Her power and influence are undisputed.

The Arab Spring was an historic social movement in which a critical mass of participants was contacted through social media platforms on mobile telecom devices.

The world has changed in part because we have faster access to more information. This empowers people.

Last year, as a public policy student at Carnegie Mellon, it became clear to me how the field of public policy is closely linked to technology and business. Developers are becoming more engaged in politics, managers require technology to remain effective, and politicians cannot survive anymore without keeping at least one eye open in social media.

Where this global movement is going, nobody knows. I do know it travels through telecommunications. Telecom determines the speed and volume of information being shared, and telecom innovation will determine what new dimensions of our social interaction will become a reality in the years to come.

Moreover, when technology becomes the mainstream, energy becomes the constraint. How we will generate the energy to operate billions of smart phones and tablets ten years from now is a critical question that relates to technology, but also to public policy and business.

It is well known today that some technology companies have become pioneers in the field of energy efficiency. Perhaps the new great revolution is how to make telecommunications self-sustainable in energy consumption.

Who the leaders of the future will be depends on each one of us, on the way we use our time and energy and the connections we generate online and offline. The next Steve Jobs might be sitting in this room right now. Or she could be in a university classroom developing greater skills in management, public policy or technology.

Thank you,

Alvaro Cedeno Molinari
Ambassador of Costa Rica
Tokyo, Japan
October 11, 2011