Friday, December 11, 2009

Matt my mate 4: From Cuba with love

An important biological species is endangered due to the rapid and progressive liquidation of its natural living conditions: the human being.

Now we become aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it.

It is necessary to mention that consumerist societies are fundamentally responsible for the atrocious destruction of the environment. They were born out of ancient colonial metropolis and imperial policies that also engendered backwardness and poverty suffered by the majority of humanity. With only 20 percent of the world population, they consume two thirds of the metals and three fourths of all energy produced in the world. They have poisoned seas and rivers, have contaminated the air, have debilitated and perforated the ozone layer, have saturated the atmosphere with gases that alter climatic conditions with catastrophic effects that we have already started to perceive.

Forests disappear, deserts extend, thousands of millions of tons of fertile land is washed down to the ocean every year. Numerous species are becoming extinct. Demographic pressure and poverty lead to desperate efforts to survive even to the expense of nature. It is not possible to blame Third World countries for this, as yesterday they were colonies, and today exploited and robbed nations by an unjust economic world order.

The solution cannot be to prevent those most in need to develop. Everything that may contribute today to underdevelopment and poverty constitutes a flagrant violation of ecology. Tens of millions of men, women and children die every year in the Third World due to this, which is more than in any of the two World Wars. Unequal interchange, protectionism and foreign debt harm ecology and promote the destruction of the environment.

If we wish to save humanity from this self-destruction, we must distribute better the wealth and technologies available in the planet. Less luxury and less waste in a few countries would allow less poverty and less hunger in most of the Earth. No more transfers to the Third World of lifestyles and consumer habits that ruin our environment. Let’s make human life more rational. Let’s apply a just international economic order. Let’s use all necessary science for a sustainable development free of pollution. Let’s pay the ecologic debt and not the foreign debt. Let’s make hunger disappear, not the human species.

When the alleged threats of Communism have vanished and there is no further pretext for cold wars, arms races and military expenditure, what will impede us from dedicating immediately those resources to promote the development of the Third World and combat the threat of the planet’s ecological destruction?

Let’s cease egotism, let’s cease hegemony, let’s cease insensitivity, irresponsibility and fraud. Tomorrow it will be too late to do what we should have done a very long time ago.


(Speech pronounced by Commander Fidel Castro at the United Nations Conference about environment and development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 12, 1992)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Matt my mate 3: Kangaroos in the midst

Adelaide, South Australia.

Another splendorous day in Adelaide. It rained today. Then it turned sunny and warm. Then windy. Now it's fairly cold. They say it will be 36C next Wednesday. Very unstable weather. Lovely, nevertheless.

Yesterday I had the rare experience of feeding a kangaroo. Their fur is so tender. Their anatomy so peculiar. Their reproductive cycle so mysterious. They have been considered a plague in Australia, and thousands of miles of anti-kangaroo fences have been set up to keep them out of some places. They roam this land like they own it. There are millions of them all around.

Next Sunday will be the grand première of WangWang and FuNi, two pandas on loan from China to the Adelaide Zoo for ten years. They are the first pandas in the Southern Hemisphere. The Chinese government does great efforts at preserving pandas and their habitats. The panda has become a global icon of endangered wildlife. The reservations to see a panda in Adelaide are fully booked for six weeks. The local zoo has constructed a state-of-the-art, 8-million-dollar special facility for those two gorgeous animals. Imagine what the Chinese would do to be able to feed a kangaroo in China!

Then there (still) are sharks, those feared, pre-historic beasts that roam the seas searching for human hips to nibble on. As if a billion hips were nibbled on in 1989, when approximately those many sharks roamed the waters. Today, it is calculated that some 100 million sharks remain in the world (90% population decline in last 20 years), and that, at this rate of consumption of mostly shark fin and mainly in China, they will be in the brink of extinction in a couple of decades.

That is terribly bad news. Because if we manage to exterminate a fierce combatant like the shark, sharper and more sensitive than any Bodhisattva or Samurai or Monk, with seven senses (two more than humans!), then we are at high risk of extinction at our own hands. Human against human, perhaps eaten until the last lady finger [never thought I'd ever use it that way!], way past the last kangaroo and dog and bird.

The gravest consequence of inaction towards climate change mitigation is that we can soon reach a tipping point beyond which all species will be subjected to extreme pressure for resources. Without water, for example, humans do not subsist more than 72 hours. If you were an elephant, how long would you wait for the rains to come at the end of the dry season before migrating in search of water elsewhere as quickly as possible? And if you were a human? And if you had a baby? Dying of thirst is probably as gruesome as choking, but much slower. Completely alive until the last bit of water from your driest muscle. Ouch. That hurt. That's why it is mandatory that we do whatever is within our individual and collective power to make it impossible for a human being to die of thirst [in this argument, I stand shoulder to shoulder with Bjørn Lomborg in support for his Copenhagen Consensus]. Or hunger. Or AIDS. Or tuberculosis. Or gunshots.

It is all connected. We are all connected. The loss of an African child with no name because she had no water, is a loss for all of us. That's why the only way out of Climate Change is peace [Gandhi must have said it already. Perhaps even Fidel Castro on the Rio Summit in 1992]. Peace among the people and across species. That if we cannot experience the joy of hugging a tree, at least we may enjoy the tenderness of feeding a kangaroo [while its baby held its head out, as if posing for the photo...]

I hope we can all hug a koala and not have to pay $30 to do it [I didn't; petting them was for free ;) ], or hug a panda without having to pay 1000 Renminbi (RMB) for such unique experience.

So, let's all petition our governments to call on a radical ban for shark finning to assess the situation of the species and ways in which the harvesting of the fin could be done sustainably. Or better, that governments unite to request China -through diplomatic channels, as it should- to crack down shark fin soup. There is no smuggling legally-sold commodities into China. Especially the faster they progress towards the Rule of Law.

In the process, foreign NGOs could support the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs (where all NGOs must register in order to operate in the country) in establishing country-wide education campaigns to explain sustainability. There would be great support from the Chinese government (especially since they will have to guarantee that the information divulged in the campaign is aligned with public policy) and from private capital as well, and NGOs could recruit millions of Chinese young adult volunteers, conforming China's army of peace. That would, not only save the shark, but probably the panda and it habitat too.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Matt my mate 2: Stop the name-calling

The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) ranks Australia in second place for 2009 (according to Wikipedia). Maybe it has to do with how much the collectivity does to ensure the quality of living of all individuals, regardless of their individual condition. There are filthy-rich people, but there are no poor. Like in Norway. Which overrides the argument that the rich get richer to the expense of the poor and highlights the responsibility for the rich to reduce socioeconomic inequality. Start by eradicating poverty. China can teach us how.

How can we determine if Australia is doing as much for its citizens in socioeconomic terms as it is doing in environmental terms? Is the government jargon about Climate Change aligned with effective public policy towards the betterment of the country's environmental performance level?

I was wondering how can we compare two indexes that could allow us to incorporate the HDI with some other measurement of environmental performance of countries. So I took the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) and I took as samples some countries I have visited, to compare what the stats say with what I have witnessed. And I found a couple of very interesting things. I assumed both HDI and EPI were comparable methodologies, so what I did was add both rankings for any one country and divide that resulting number by two. In one word: average.

There is an evident leadership among a very few countries that are both in the HDI and EPI Top 10. Of the countries I have visited, only four are such leaders: France, Norway, Finland, and Sweden. Most of the sampled countries I have visited in the last two years -six of them- rank outside either of the two Top 100 (yes, one hundred.) That's because I have been living in Beijing and traveling around Southeast Asia. Of these countries, three rank outside both Top 100 indexes: Burma, Indonesia, and Cambodia, which is, by the way, the country I have ever visited that ranks lowest in both indexes. Therefore, the poorest country I have ever visited.

Most poverty I have seen is very distant, geographically, from the richest I have visited.

This shows me two trends: first, that Scandinavian countries have done something right (in fact, four of the five Nordic countries feature in one of the two Top 10s). Second, that Southeast Asia will be in the top list of countries needing more attention in terms of cooperation for Climate Change adaptation. Definitely, dozens of African countries will be there too.

How can we demand accountability from the institutions in charge?

The rich have to pay. It is clear by now that there will be no agreement about who should pay how much. One alternative to the deadlock and the name-calling is to have countries pay in accordance with the volume of their military expenditures. Show me your big guns. And your money. With a similar parameter we may determine how to prioritize the assignment of cooperation: according to the rate of reduction of military expenditures by those countries more in need.

It may sound a bit coercive, but it would be a way to organize cooperation in terms of virtue from the receiving countries. For this, the major military sellers in the world (you name them) would have to agree that their business would be running low for a while.

Are we negotiating in Copenhagen in these terms? Or are we going to discuss carbon emissions, as if 350 parts per million or 400 were better than the 280 ppm of pre-industrial times?

And stop the name-calling. Because many countries perform far worse in the HDI than in the EPI. Like United States, Japan, and Israel. Others perform way better, like Brazil, The Philippines, and Germany. In modern days of severe environmental degradation, which country is richer then: Costa Rica, ranking an average 29 in both indexes, or Israel, 38? Or could we also say that Costa Rica (29), Australia (24), and the United States (26) have a similar development?

Where would you prefer to live?

Measuring the ecological impact of the Gross National Product (GNP)

Antonio Burgués, Costa Rican Ambassador to China. Álvaro Cedeño, admitted Public Policy student at Carnegie Mellon, Australia.

The Chinese word for “crisis” is “Wei Ji,” which means both crisis and opportunity. They believe in the Far East that crises must be conceived as a change for things to improve. Civilization has come to a Tipping Point not only regarding the way its economy has been growing, but also regarding the qualitative content of its impact on quality of life –life in the broad sense of the word- where traditional economic indexes are not enough anymore.

Dr. Daniel Goleman, intellectual father of the concept of emotional intelligence, has recently published the book “Ecological Intelligence,” right on the spot for the times we are living on the planet today in terms of growth and environmental impact. In this book, he elaborates about a concept that must be considered.

He speaks about “radical transparency” as an information principle that will more closely engage producers and consumers, introducing “an opening about the consequences of the things we do, sell, buy and discard, which goes beyond the current comfort zones of most businesses.”

This information interchange about the ecological impact of all our acts of commerce “will show an economic path that has not yet been taken: to measure the ecological impact to the things we buy with the same transparency standards required, for example, in financial statements.” We would add, also, in public government systems.

Which are the incentives to be transparent or to calculate and include the ecological impact of the products and services in the information made available throughout all commercial interchange? Essentially, to have the possibility to make more intelligent and ethically correct decisions regarding the long-lasting ecological footprint each human being leaves in his or her daily life.

Such measure would provoke, immediately, the need on behalf of countries and their economic policy to include ecological programs incorporated into the GNP, as well as to incorporate indexes to measure ecological impact or environmental performance for the entire economy.

This would reveal, with radical transparency, if a country is effectively growing at 8% per year, or if, instead, due to the environmental impact generated by such growth, it is decreasing economically. We would then also talk about ecological recessions, which would be harmonious with our environment.

The same way there are indexes to measure quality of life, happiness, environmental performance, quality of public education, or level of safety and security, there should be an index of sustainable growth that may reflect, in GNP terms, the ecological impact that the economy puts on natural resources, renewable or not.

The concept of developed country would be spoken in terms of conservation. It is not enough anymore to measure economy in terms of volume of money, but, also, in terms of preservation of renewable resources such as air, potable water, fertile land, forest coverage, biodiversity, and the integral residue management, among other things. Yvon Chouinard, founder of the brand of eco-clothes Patagonia, has said, “business can’t be done in a dead planet.”

Costa Rica is, therefore, a great example of development, since it has maintained economic growth while preserving, in good measure, its environmental performance, increasing its forest coverage and raising awareness, even through public policy, of its enormous richness in biodiversity.

These achievements make it only much more urgent and important to focus efforts on taking care of its areas of improvement, like the protection of aquifers, the transformation of agricultural production to make it less polluting, the legal protection of our patrimonial seas with greater richness in biodiversity, and the reeducation of our population regarding the integral management of domestic, industrial and hospital residues.

This change in methodology measuring economic indicators would serve as a tool for the search of both international cooperation among countries and transversal cooperation among private, public and non-governmental sectors, following the principle of win-win cooperation that has become popular.

Those projects that may require more attention or that may be more susceptible of generating economic and ecological wealth will be prioritized in domestic and foreign development agendas of a country.

When the measurement ruler changes, the rules of the game will also change and there might even be a variation between winners and losers. The most responsible societies investing in their ecological future, or in its economic growth with the incorporation of ecological variables, would increase its value and would be more susceptible of receiving international cooperation and attracting foreign direct investment.

This is precisely where the Consensus of Costa Rica and Peace with Nature intersect. Both have been a top priority of the Costa Rican crusade of this Administration through its foreign policy.

This new century, the economy must be conceived as a whole, and at the service of all human beings. The virtue of this measurement applied to national assets on the GNP generates transparency with the present and future generations to create a more socially and ecologically responsible country and with world-level leadership.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Matt my Mate: When does Copenhagen start?

Adelaide, Australia.

Dear Matt,

Does anyone know when the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change begins? I thought it had begun 125 days ago (inside joke for those who followed the countdown on Facebook) when some of us were worrying that not much was being done about it, or at least it didn't feel like it. Since August, 2008, right during the Water Summit in Sweden, Climate Change was picking up. Even The Economist started changing its editorial profile about the topic and had "a climate change of opinion," as they so masterfully put it in one article's title. And then, it happened...

The stock market crashed, as painfully as it could, and left us all thinking and rethinking so many things about our daily lives, that we were globally caught up in the discussion. So, the year that we should have spent generating dialogue about an issue as rupturing in our civilization as the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change that starts today, we spent it talking about how come the market also crashes when it spends more than what it earns. Just like me. The greatest loss was all the rich synergies that could have been developed globally during this last year if we would have shared together that grandiose information apparatus humanity has created called the media for a common purpose.

The media is boring and manipulative and uninformative sometimes because there is really nothing that serious to report about. The media is not what is stupid. It is those of us who follow it as if it was a religion. I bet no responsible and serious media enterprise that covers world affairs has in its mission statement: "to make people believe in us." That is a mission statement that would be impossible to achieve in a community of highly-educated people that would not cross a dime unless there was sufficient proof that, under any reputable methodology, it could be considered probably or absolutely true that what is being presented in the media is, in fact, TRUE. Otherwise, they -the hypereducated- would take the information with the superficiality it deserves. And then start digging before forming an opinion, even before starting the pandemic of fear that usually adrenalizes us all en masse pandemonium, like when Michael Jackson passed away.

I am sure he would have preferred that all the energy and all the love (L-O-V-E) and all the time and money spent into the question of whether he was really dead or not or sick or not or murdered or not or rich or not or bald or not, or black or not, we would have used it to generate empathy across our borders (especially the mental borders) and try to think how can we prevent the ever-growing death tolls of natural disasters around the world. We all lose when we lose someone. Even if we are already numb to the suffering of others, we can still remember, as a glitch in our intoxicated brains, that if someone suffers, we all suffer. Our species will not evolve symbiotically if we disregard one another. We are not going to be better if we defeat ourselves to death.

That's why we need to change.

One idea that just popped to my mind (or I read about it in The Advertiser of Adelaide today, I can't really say...) is what if we divide the political responsibility of the decision-making process regarding climate change. There may be regions with far less territory and population than some small world states that would prefer to be left alone the way they are right now, without having or needing to change anything in their lifestyles because of others. Like for example, indigenous communities around the world that have earned their right to be in our current stage civilization, precisely because they proved to be sustainable (in fact, self-sustainable, as most didn't do much trade with other groups) for thousands of years.

Or it could be that some territorial unities are so contaminating to the world environment that they deserve a different treatment than the rest, with more financial and technological assistance to transform its industry from highly polluting to restorative, or higher taxation on specific emissions to that particular place, or recommendations about the species of trees that should be planted in that area to reforest it in 40 years from now. We need to go back to the forests, back to the jungles. We need to go back to building under the shade and protecting the pine trees that cut the strong winds from the mountain. We need to go back to drinking water from the tap and not fear our baby developing a respiratory condition. The same way a human being 100 years ago would not have liked to see a dear one being poisoned.

We have been poisoning ourselves. But that's nothing new. We are not going to get anyone off their chair by saying that. We smoke, we drink alcohol, we use combustion engines, we use electricity, we recharge batteries, we buy and buy and buy clothes and shoes and shit that piles up in desks and drawers and closets and attics, and warehouses and garbage dumps. So we are the problem. It is our responsibility. The tough challenge is that many of us are self-destructive (suicidal in slow motion) and many are skeptic. Fortunately, few are ignorant. So it is not a matter of intellect, but a matter of attitude (skeptics) and a question of punishment (in the case of the ones that match with suicidal conduct, like smoking tobacco or driving under the influence of alcohol.)

Now, before you throw your first rocks at me and start labeling me with post-Sept. 11-jargon about the extremist morality of my religion, it is important to remember that societies that are with us for over 5000 years do know the way better than those that have been here for less than 500 (in one word, all colonies, including the entire American continent except Guatemala and Bolivia, the two countries that still have a majority of indigenous people among their state population) [Congratulations, Mr. Evo Morales, for your re-election in Bolivia!]. Millenary civilizations know the way already, and the ones that are not, have been the ones ruling the industrialized planet for far too little time in their cultural existence. They have not prepared to flourish as a species and they seem doomed to extinction as well. I refer to the West (the wild, wild West...) And they won't die alone. With them, goes the rest of us. Therefore, there is no "Us" and "Them" (it sounds SOOOOOO last decade already...) anymore, but a "We" pronoun that stands for humanity. So part of our responsibility shall be to respect our elders -the more ancient ones among our cultures- to listen to them, to listen to the experience they have accumulated living much longer than us and through other harsher times. Let's ask them questions. We are facilitators in the process of having them show us the way. For that, we must learn to listen. To understand that pain will always be there once you get old, but a comforting hug or a phone call or a smile can make pain feel so much better for a bit.

If we were responsible at a smaller political level, it would be easier to participate. Plus, it would be more ethical, because the politicians in charge don't have that much to lose. They are not at the very top with the cherry in their mouths. It would be a lot more people like you and I gathering at night once a week and reading a few e-mails a week and making transformative decisions for the state of the environment as perceived from our smaller territorial unity.

In a country like Australia, this would be fairly easy. The country is so massive that 20 million people are divided in smaller groups that control vast amounts of territory. But in a country like Costa Rica, where are we jammed over each other for lack of planning and infrastructure to help secondary cities develop faster, then it is very difficult to make our communication more effective for problem-solving because we have to speak too loud to be heard, so we are unable to listen to anyone else. And everybody thinks they have a better opinion than the expert, be it a president, a football coach, a policeman, or your own freaking mother that gave birth to you. So, splitting the decision-making process into municipalities would result, in the case of Costa Rica, in 81 grassroot-think-tanks working voluntarily for the diagnosis, prognosis and transformation of the state of the local environment. So guess what would happen in Parque Nacional Las Baulas in Playa Grande, Guanacaste, when there is a municipal referendum to decide what to do with the freaking park. Didn't guanacastecos decide to join Costa Rica precisely in that same way? Was it any less civilized in 1824 than it would be today?

And then maybe the people from Beijing -or, for that matter, from the Chaoyang district where I used to live until last Month- would have to pay far more taxes than others in less polluted communities. And I don't mean that everybody has to pay more taxes. I mean those who individually contribute more with the environmental degradation. The poor have paid a heavy burden drinking dirty water and not having access to medication and dying young or violently. There would be far less suffering in the world if we would all die of old age, when your relatives have had years and years to say goodbye to you before simply fading in your sleep, like angels die. Not out of typhoid fever or diarrhea or cancer or AIDS or murdered. Imagine what the world would be like if all nations would have agreed to a human rights charter that started: "Every person has the right to die of old age..." Then we would be talking.

A brief note on the rich paying like poor: if the rich would pay 1% more -a small burden for most- than what they already pay (or if they only paid what they had to pay, without legal tricks to shake off the civic and moral responsibility of helping others help themselves) (and I include myself among the rich, definitely. After all I have seen out in some of the poorest places on Earth, I consider myself very rich -and privileged, and blessed- for the wealth that has surrounded me all my life), they could relieve a very heavy burden on hundreds or thousands or millions of people. Some burdens are life-threatening even at a young age, like the 1000 children under 5 that die every hour of a preventable disease, like malaria or tuberculosis. It is not that anyone wants to make the rich any less rich. It is empirically known that stealing is not sustainable. It is that the rich ignore the immense power they have to help heal the lives of so many others, perhaps because we the rich do not spend that much time coexisting with the poor. If we did, we would perfectly well know with how very little we could do so much for so many others. It is a question of morality. But not because we are immoral, but because we are ignorant of the conditions in which others live.

Every state, every province, every district, every municipality, every town hall, every neighbor gathering would permit far greater dialogue and creative search for synergies to deal with the environmental situation of the smaller community. And it would also allow, in very many cases, allow for a very rich and constructive interaction between the rich and the poor.

As professor Galtung used to say: "Sometimes, to solve a small problem you must make it bigger, and to solve a big problem you must make it smaller."

Cheers, Mate!