Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Beyond ecological imperialism

The row over climate change isn't just a battle between rich and poor, it illustrates the futility of obsession with economic growth

Jayati Ghosh guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 December 2009 12.30 GMT

So the Copenhagen summit did not deliver any hope of substantive change, or even any indication that the world's leaders are sufficiently aware of the vastness and urgency of the problem. But is that such a surprise? Nothing in the much-hyped runup to the summit suggested that the organisers and participants had genuine ambitions to change course and stop or reverse a process of clearly unsustainable growth.

Part of the problem is that the issue of climate change is increasingly portrayed as that of competing interests between countries. Thus, the summit has been interpreted variously as a fight between the "two largest culprits" – the US and China – or between a small group of developed countries and a small group of newly emerging countries (the group of four – China, India, Brazil and South Africa), or at best between rich and poor countries.

The historical legacy of past growth in the rich countries that has a current adverse impact is certainly keenly felt in the developing world. It is not just the past: current per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the developed world are still many multiples of that in any developing country, including China. So the attempts by northern commentators to lay blame on some countries for derailing the result by pointing to this discrepancy are seen in most developing countries as further evidence of an essentially colonial outlook.

But describing this as a fight between countries misses the essential point: that the issue is really linked to an economic system – capitalism – that is crucially dependent upon rapid growth as its driving force, even if this "growth" does not deliver better lives for the people. So there is no questioning of the supposition that rich countries with declining populations must keep on growing in terms of GDP, rather than finding different ways of creating and distributing output to generate better quality of life. There is no debating of the pattern of growth in "successful" developing countries, which has in many cases come at the cost of increased inequality, greater material insecurity for a significant section of the population and massive damage to the environment.

Since such questions were not even at the table at the Copenhagen summit – even a "successful" outcome with some sort of common statement would hardly have been a sign of the kind of change that is required. But this does not mean that the problem has gone away; in fact, it is more pressing than ever.

Optimists believe that the problem can be solved in a win-win outcome that is based on "green" growth and new technologies that provide "dematerialised" output, so that growth has decreasing impact on the environment. But such a hope is also limited by the Jevons paradox (after the 19th century English economist William Stanley Jevons), which states that the expansion of output typically overwhelms all increases in efficiency in throughput of materials and energy.

This is forcefully elucidated in an important new book by John Bellamy Foster. Foster argues that a rational reorganisation of the metabolism between nature and society needs to be directed not simply at climate change but also at a whole host of other environmental problems. "The immense danger now facing the human species ... is not due principally to the constraints of the natural environment, but arises from a deranged social system wheeling out of control, and more specifically US imperialism." (p 105)

How does imperialism enter into this? "Capital ... is running up against ecological barriers at a biospheric level that cannot be overcome, as was the case previously, through the 'spatial fix' of geographical expansion and exploitation. Ecological imperialism – the growth of the centre of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thorough-going ecological degradation of the periphery – is now generating a planetary-scale set of ecological contradictions, imperilling the entire biosphere." (p 249)

This does not mean that the interests of people in the centre are inevitably opposed to those of people in the periphery, since both are now adversely affected by the results of such ecological imbalances. Instead, it means that it is now in all of our interests to shift from an obsession on growth that is primarily directed to increasing capitalist profits, to a more rational organisation of society and of the relation between humanity and nature.

So there is indeed a win-win solution, but one that cannot be based on the existing economic paradigm. The good news is that more humane and democratic alternatives are also likely to be more environmentally sustainable.

How to solve climate change

By Chan Akya

"Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?"
- Groucho Marx
I am neither surprised nor happy about the failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change. The mutual finger-pointing that has been unleashed, particularly between the United States and European Union on the one end and China, India and other developing countries on the other, is merely a result of human beings acting to their narrow self (national) interests rather than those of humanity in general.

Groucho Marx captured the sentiment many decades ago, as my opening quote shows; mankind is all about living for the now, damn the consequences.

I blame the following factors for the failure of Copenhagen:
1. A poor negotiating framework where unimportant countries such as Venezuela effectively got to block the efforts of bigger carbon emitters to make good.
2. An extraordinary focus on national carbon emission targets, as against a focus on reducing per capita emissions globally.
3. Asymmetry between rich countries that are producing most of the world's carbon emissions but are in demographic decline against poor countries that produce the least carbon emissions but are in demographic ascent.
4. Unsavory discussions, particularly from the Europeans, on who would foot the bill for reducing the effects of climate change.

As a late convert to the science of global warming, or more accurately climate change - and no, it wasn't Al Gore's movie (An Inconvenient Truth) that did the trick - perhaps I am among the last people who should actually write anything on this subject. Then again, it is our world after all, so here goes. In December 2007, I wrote an article titled How central banks could save the world for Asia Times Online. This article dealt with the failed economic logic behind the movement to save the world from itself. Here is a part of the article that should ring with readers, especially seeing as it is over two years old now:
... Going back to the current account deficit though, it represents the "dream" target of any Green. In actual carbon terms, the import of Asian products, for example, represents the carbon emissions of Asian countries as well as those of the global shipping industry. All told, various publications cite different figures but it would not be hazardous to assign some 30% of global emissions to the US current account deficit.

This is what the Greens miss completely - they count the emissions of China and India in the same league of the US and Europe, and that is wrong because a substantial portion of Asian emissions goes to the manufacture of goods consumed in the US.

In turn, what gets consumed in the US is also financed by Asia because Americans stopped saving from the time [president Jimmy] Carter stepped down. This is the billions of dollars in Asian central banks devoted to the purchase of US treasury bonds, as well as various "highly rated" securities. I have written often enough about how much money will be lost in Asia because of these bonds, and there is no need to repeat my arguments here.

To a large extent, the twin forces of a disingenuous Fed (euphemism for outright liars) and harmony-seeking Asian central banks (euphemism for dumb no-gooders who wouldn't get a job flipping burgers if their uncles hadn't made them the governors of the PBOC or BoJ or whatever) allow this circle of deficit-financed consumption to persist.

At the moment, with the US consumers' loans looking very risky indeed - this week for example reports showed sharply increased delinquency rates on auto loans in addition to the continued defaults on housing loans - Asian bankers are panicking about what to do with the billions of US securities on their books.

They have urged the US Fed to become more aggressive on interest rate cuts, to help the US economy recover, in effect helping to perpetuate the cycle of global warming described above. In the face of rampant inflation, it makes sense for the US Fed to hike rates now and engineer a hard landing for the US economy. A few million Americans will be thrown out of work, but so what - they weren't necessarily working on anything except selling each other inflated housing anyway.

A hard landing for the US economy will help cut global carbon emissions, by a factor of over 10%, so why not engineer it? This will also force Asian central banks to abandon their US dollar pegs (which is the main reason their incompetence can never be seen by the public) and actually try to manage inflation and growth in their own countries.

With a bulk of the world's manufacturing now in Asia, a shift in consumption to the region would not be a bad thing, and anyway overall shipping emissions will decline because goods will be consumed closer to the point of manufacture.
Moving forward from here requires every level of Group of 20 (G-20) government to buy into the following guiding principles:
1. It isn't the total emissions of any country that matter but rather the per capita figure: a human life in Cambodia is no less valuable than one in Germany.
2. Per capita emissions should be adjusted for trade, ie add emissions from imports and reduce those from exports.
3. The cure of carbon capture (specifically CO2 capture) is more effective than any preventive steps that can be taken from here on.
4. Developed countries should bear most of the cost.

A huge swathe of carbon emissions today are tied to the category of wasteful consumption: from plastic packaging to paper towels, items of daily use for the middle classes of Europe and the United States represent the most substantial burden on the rest of humanity. On the other end of the spectrum, the basic quality of life in much of Asia including China and India, as well as most of Africa, remains fairly challenging. Asian cities have improved dramatically, particularly in China, for the past two decades, but the countryside remains a place for making further improvements to the human condition. Thus, Asia and Africa have very little room to reduce aggregate emissions.

An alternate approach
After reading my previous article in its entirety as well as a follow up article, my suggestion would be for the following framework to be adopted by G-20 immediately:

Firstly, all central banks will push interest rates up to a level of 5% real - that is, the difference between nominal interest rates and inflation in those countries will be at least 5%

Secondly, the global average per capita CO2 emission will be targeted for reduction - the laws of statistics are that the best way to achieve this would be to cut the emissions of those producing significantly above this average, that is, the United States and Europe and certain countries in the Middle East such as Qatar (the world's highest per capita emitter).

Thirdly, negative economic goods will see their prices shoot up dramatically, for example fuel costs will have to be increased in order to push people towards alternate sources of energy.

Fourthly, only countries that sign up to these rules would be eligible for free trade; punitive duties will be imposed on trade with any country that doesn't sign up.

Lastly, all global summits including those of the United Nations, G-20 and climate meetings will be held in hot, under-developed countries such as in sub-Saharan Africa rather than in comfortable and cozy tourist spots.

Look at the benefits:

By raising interest rates to a comfortable real level, all manners of wasteful consumption will be immediately curtailed. The notion of buying a "McMansion", thereby requiring imports of Canadian timber, Brazilian hardwood, Chinese appliances et al will have to be economically sustainable; that isn't necessarily comfortable in a 5% real interest rate environment.

Targeting a reduction in global per capita emissions means that an economic contraction will have to take place in G-20; otherwise rich countries will have to invest substantially in carbon capture to meet their obligations. Either way, the planet wins.

Tripling the price of oil at the pump and gas for heating would be a good start for the United States. In Europe, with its substantial duties and taxes, a doubling would suffice. This move would push Americans and Europeans to invest in more sustainable energy sources including nuclear, solar and wind.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, the Copenhagen summit failed because there was no penalty for not agreeing to a deal. Instead, countries adopting these principles could effectively erect trade barriers against any holdouts. By increasing the cost of saying "no", the chances of a "yes" are increased dramatically. Simple game theory, really.

My last point isn't meant as a throwaway. I have a deeply held suspicion that people in rich countries who start waving their hands and pointing fingers at these climate-change pulpits have no real understanding of the real economic issues confronting the developing world. If you were to stick French President Nicholas Sarkozy in the middle of a Tanzanian drought-hit flatland, his propensity to talk up the need for rich countries to "share" with poor countries would, I suspect, actually reverse from his current position.

Plus it would be good fun to watch all these idiot politicians actually sweat towards a deal, for a change.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The truths Copenhagen ignored

Johann Hari
The politicians have chosen low taxes and oil money today over survival tomorrow
So that's it. The world's worst polluters - the people who are drastically altering the climate - gathered here in Copenhagen to announce they were going to carry on cooking, in defiance of all the scientific warnings.
They didn't seal the deal; they sealed the coffin for the world's low-lying islands, its glaciers, its North Pole, and millions of lives.
Those of us who watched this conference with open eyes aren't surprised. Every day, practical, intelligent solutions that would cut our emissions of warming gases have been offered by scientists, developing countries and protesters - and they have been systematically vetoed by the governments of North America and Europe.
It's worth recounting a few of the ideas that were summarily dismissed - because when the world finally resolves to find a real solution, we will have to revive them.
Discarded Idea One: The International Environmental Court. Any cuts that leaders claim they would like as a result of Copenhagen will be purely voluntary. If a government decides not to follow them, nothing will happen, except a mild blush, and disastrous warming. Canada signed up to cut its emissions at Kyoto, and then increased them by 26 per cent - and there were no consequences. Copenhagen could unleash a hundred Canadas.
The brave, articulate Bolivian delegates - who have seen their glaciers melt at a terrifying pace - objected. They said if countries are serious about reducing emissions, their cuts need to be policed by an International Environmental Court that has the power to punish people. This is hardly impractical. When our leaders and their corporate lobbies really care about an issue - say, on trade - they pool their sovereignty this way in a second. The World Trade Organisation fines and sanctions nations severely if (say) they don't follow strict copyright laws. Is a safe climate less important than a trademark?
Discarded Idea Two: Leave the fossil fuels in the ground. At meetings here, an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy has been pointed out by the new international chair of Friends of the Earth, Nnimmo Bassey, and the environmental writer George Monbiot. The governments of the world say they want drastically to cut their use of fossil fuels, yet at the same time they are enthusiastically digging up any fossil fuels they can find, and hunting for more. They are holding a fire extinguisher in one hand and a flame-thrower in the other.
Only one of these instincts can prevail. A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature showed that we can use only - at an absolute maximum - 60 per cent of all the oil, coal and gas we have already discovered if we are going to stay the right side of catastrophic runaway warming. So the first step in any rational climate deal would be an immediate moratorium on searching for more fossil fuels, and fair plans for how to decide which of the existing stock we will leave unused. As Bassey put it: "Keep the coal in the hole. Keep the oil in the soil. Keep the tar sand in the land." This option wasn't even discussed by our leaders.
Discarded Idea Three: Climate debt. The rich world has been responsible for 70 per cent of the warming gases in the atmosphere - yet 70 per cent of the effects are being felt in the developing world. Holland can build vast dykes to prevent its land flooding; Bangladesh can only drown. There is a cruel inverse relationship between cause and effect: the polluter doesn't pay.
So we have racked up a climate debt. We broke it; they paid. At this summit, for the first time, the poor countries rose in disgust. Their chief negotiator pointed out that the compensation offered "won't even pay for the coffins". The cliché that environmentalism is a rich person's ideology just gasped its final CO2-rich breath. As Naomi Klein put it: "At this summit, the pole of environmentalism has moved south."
When we are dividing up who has the right to emit the few remaining warming gases that the atmosphere can absorb, we need to realise that we are badly overdrawn. We have used up our share of warming gases, and then some. Yet the US and EU have dismissed the idea of climate debt out of hand. How can we get a lasting deal that every country agrees to if we ignore this basic principle of justice? Why should the poorest restrain themselves when the rich refuse to?
A deal based on these real ideas would actually cool the atmosphere. The alternatives championed at Copenhagen by the rich world - carbon offsetting, carbon trading, carbon capture - won't. They are a global placebo. The critics who say the real solutions are "unrealistic" don't seem to realise that their alternative is more implausible still: civilisation continuing merrily on a planet whose natural processes are rapidly breaking down.
Throughout the negotiations here, the world's low-lying island states have clung to the real ideas as a life raft, because they are the only way to save their countries from a swelling sea. It has been extraordinary to watch their representatives - quiet, sombre people with sad eyes - as they were forced to plead for their own existence. They tried persuasion and hard science and lyrical hymns of love for their lands, and all were ignored.
These discarded ideas - and dozens more like them - show once again that man-made global warming can be stopped. The intellectual blueprints exist just as surely as the technological blueprints. There would be sacrifices, yes - but they are considerably less than the sacrifices made by our grandparents in their greatest fight.
We will have to pay higher taxes and fly less to make the leap to a renewably powered world - but we will still be able to live an abundant life where we are warm and free and well fed. The only real losers will be the fossil fuel corporations and the petro-dictatorships.
But our politicians have not chosen this sane path. No: they have chosen inertia and low taxes and oil money today over survival tomorrow. The true face of our current system - and of Copenhagen - can be seen in the life-saving ideas it has so casually tossed into the bin.

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Friday, 18 December 2009

Better to have no deal at Copenhagen than one that spells catastrophe



The only offer on the table in Copenhagen would condemn the developing world to poverty and suffering in perpetuity


On the ninth day of the Copenhagen climate summit, Africa was sacrificed. The position of the G77 negotiating bloc, including African states, had been clear: a 2C increase in average global temperatures translates into a 3–3.5C increase in Africa. That means, according to the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, "an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger", and "water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people".

Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it like this: "We are facing impending disaster on a monstrous scale … A global goal of about 2C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development."


And yet that is precisely what Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, proposed to do when he stopped off in Paris on his way to Copenhagen: standing with President Nicolas Sarkozy, and claiming to speak on behalf of all of Africa (he is the head of the African climate-negotiating group), he unveiled a plan that includes the dreaded 2C increase and offers developing countries just $10bn a year to help pay for everything climate related, from sea walls to malaria treatment to fighting deforestation.


It's hard to believe this is the same man who only three months ago was saying this: "We will use our numbers to delegitimise any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position … If need be, we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent … What we are not prepared to live with is global warming above the minimum avoidable level."And this: "We will participate in the upcoming negotiations not as supplicants pleading for our case but as negotiators defending our views and interests."


We don't yet know what Zenawi got in exchange for so radically changing his tune or how, exactly, you go from a position calling for $400bn a year in financing (the Africa group's position) to a mere $10bn. Similarly, we do not know what happened when secretary of state Hillary Clinton met Philippine president Gloria Arroyo just weeks before the summit and all of a sudden the toughest Filipino negotiators were kicked off their delegation and the country, which had been demanding deep cuts from the rich world, suddenly fell in line.


We do know, from witnessing a series of these jarring about-faces, that the G8 powers are willing to do just about anything to get a deal in Copenhagen. The urgency does not flow from a burning desire to avert cataclysmic climate change, since the negotiators know full well that the paltry emissions cuts they are proposing are a guarantee that temperatures will rise a "Dantesque" 3.9C, as Bill McKibben puts it.


Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development – one of the most influential advisers in these talks – says the negotiations are not really about averting climate change but are a pitched battle over a profoundly valuable resource: the right to the sky. There is a limited amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere. If the rich countries fail to radically cut their emissions, then they are actively gobbling up the already insufficient share available to the south. What is at stake, Stilwell argues, is nothing less than "the importance of sharing the sky".

Europe, he says, fully understands how much money will be made from carbon trading, since it has been using the mechanism for years. Developing countries, on the other hand, have never dealt with carbon restrictions, so many governments don't really grasp what they are losing. Contrasting the value of the carbon market – $1.2 trillion a year, according to leading British economist Nicholas Stern – with the paltry $10bn on the table for developing countries for the next three years, Stilwell says that rich countries are trying to exchange "beads and blankets for Manhattan". He adds: "This is a colonial moment. That's why no stone has been left unturned in getting heads of state here to sign off on this kind of deal … Then there's no going back. You've carved up the last remaining unowned resource and allocated it to the wealthy."
For months now NGOs have got behind a message that the goal of Copenhagen is to "seal the deal". Everywhere we look in the Bella Centre, clocks are ticking. But any old deal isn't good enough, especially because the only deal on offer won't solve the climate crisis and might make things much worse, taking current inequalities between north and south and locking them in indefinitely.
Augustine Njamnshi of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance puts the 2C proposal in harsh terms: "You cannot say you are proposing a 'solution' to climate change if your solution will see millions of Africans die and if the poor not the polluters keep paying for climate change."
Stilwell says that the wrong kind of deal would "lock in the wrong approach all the way to 2020" – well past the deadline for peak emissions. But he insists that it's not too late to avert this worst-case scenario. "I'd rather wait six months or a year and get it right because the science is growing, the political will is growing, the understanding of civil society and affected communities is growing, and they'll be ready to hold their leaders to account to the right kind of a deal."
At the start of these negotiations the mere notion of delay was environmental heresy. But now many are seeing the value of slowing down and getting it right. Most significant, after describing what 2C would mean for Africa, Archbishop Tutu pronounced that it is "better to have no deal than to have a bad deal". That may well be the best we can hope for in Copenhagen. It would be a political disaster for some heads of state – but it could be one last chance to avert the real disaster for everyone else.

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Thursday, 17 December 2009

Myths about Immigration #4 - "Britain is overpopulated"

By Barry Curtis in the Independent
December 16th, 22:31

This is the fourth in my series questioning myths about immigration. The first three challenging "Britain is a soft touch", "British jobs for British workers", and "Immigrants are a burden to the economy" can be accessed here, here, and here. Now I am concerned with the pervasive myth that Britain is, or is becoming, overpopulated.

The view of Britain as overpopulated is held by the Optimum Population Trust - an influential group of pessimistic academics, right wing cranks like the British National Party, various House of Lords peers, green activists, and government leaders. The 'Balanced Migration' parliamentary group set up in 2008 believes in a one-in, one-out policy to stop Britain become more populous. Balanced Migration is chaired by Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, Labour and Tory respectively, and supported by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, and by the Muslim Labour peer, Lord Ahmed. But how believable is this idea?

The idea that Britain is overpopulated can seem plausible if you live in a tower block in the middle of a city. However not all of Britain is like this. In fact there are over 60 million acres in Britain - enough for one acre per person. If you are a member of a family of four, that means your household could have 4 acres. Furthermore only 8% of the land in Britain is actually settled. 46% is used in agriculture. This suggests the population could nearly double without pressing too hard on the boundaries of what is currently 'sustainable'.

Like all resources, land use is distributed by the market and enforced by the state rather than according to a conscious plan. Thus although there is enough land for each individual to have an acre, or half an acre if the population doubled, in fact a family of four is very lucky if it has one acre between them. Meanwhile the Duke of Buccleuch owns 270,900 acres. 69% of the UK's acreage is owned by 0.6% of the population. So what might initially appear as a lack of land per head, is really a social issue regarding how it is allocated. Britain is not overpopulated but it does have a social system that favours the few over the majority.

So if Britain is not overpopulated with regard to the amount of land available, what about with regard to public services? Might not public services all crumble if there was more pressure on them from an expanding population? Again, the problem is not too many people, but a political culture that lacks the vision to solve problems. If a public service such as a hospital or a railway appears to be overburdened, this is a political problem that could be solved by finding ways to increase capacity in each instance. To blame 'too many people' is to recast a political problem as a natural problem. This is a dangerous mistake because it prevents the search for humanistic alternatives to the political mistake and leads to draconian social policy against people - immigration controls are an example of this, healthcare rationing is another example.

Some might argue that Britain is overpopulated because we are reaching the end of 'finite resources'. But this too is an error. What becomes a resource depends very much on technological development - for most of human history, for example, uranium was useless. It was used 2,000 years ago to make glass more yellow, but that was it. Now the stuff can power whole cities. Coal was of prime importance 200 years ago but is now fading away in terms of importance to Britons. Oceans were once a barrier to man, but now can be mined for oil. In appropriate locations, the wind and the waves can be exploited for energy generation when in the past they were merely facts of life. Perhaps in a few hundred years, people will be mining the asteroid belt for new resources. And if nuclear fusion becomes a reality, the amount of energy anyone can use will become infinite, and therefore dirt cheap.

The notion that expanding populations use up all the resources and therefore indirectly kill themselves goes back to right-wing country parson Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). Today the argument is hysterically used by groups like the BNP to say Britain is dying under the weight of immigration, but in Malthus' time the argument was new. Malthus thought the increasing population (which he thought was attributable to the masses having too much sex) would become so large that there wouldn't be enough food to go around, and therefore people would starve, thus bringing the population size down again. But Malthus was refuted by history. What happened instead was that industrialised society created more and more food. The population could keep on expanding because humans were creative ingenious types, not mere devourers of resources.

In 1967, Malthus' basic argument was rehashed by Paul Ehrlich who wrote "The battle to feed all of humanity is over ... In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also thought there would be a generalised materials and goods famine by the mid 1980s. In fact food production outstripped household demand, as raw materials did industrial demand. The basic lesson we should learn from this is that Malthusians are always wrong because they never factor human ingenuity into their equations. And because economic migrants are often very enterprising people, it makes sense to abandon immigration controls in order that their talents might be used to benefit Britain's increasing population.

Arguing that there are too many people only comes to the fore in the context of an absence of a sense of common purpose. For example, at the Glastonbury music festival there is a highly concentrated population, just as there was on the 2003 anti-Iraq war marches. But the crowds add to the atmosphere because you're there for the same reason. Thus you don't think of Glastonbury or a big demo as 'overpopulated'. Individuals in society need to realise they have common goals if the myth of overpopulation is to wither away. And one such worthy goal could be to do battle with all the Malthusian arguments currently being thrown about.

To conclude, Britain is not overpopulated in any sense of the term.  Birth rates in the UK and across Europe are in decline - there were 1,014,700 births in Britain in 1964, compared to 716,000 forty years later. Britain's population is ageing. We need more immigrants to help make Britain bigger and better. Open the borders now!

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Wednesday, 16 December 2009

'Dreams Are Made Out Of Impossibles'

'...As soon as one impossible becomes possible, it shakes up the structure and creates a domino effect, preparing the ground for making many other impossibles possible.'
Muhammad Yunus

The 2nd Professor Hiren Mukerjee Memorial Annual Parliamentary Lecture delivered by Professor Muhammad Yunus: "Social Business: A Step toward creating a new economic and social order" on Wednesday, 9th December, 2009 at Central Hall, Parliament House, New Delhi. The inaugural lecture was given by another Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen

Hon. Vice-President of India; Hon. Prime Minister of India, Hon. Speaker of Lok Sabha; Hon. Members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha; Distinguished Ministers; and Ladies and Gentlemen:

When I first got the invitation, I got really scared. I did not believe that I will have an invitation like this to address the Members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Then, I felt that I have so many friends here, and so, instead of thinking of them in terms of Members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, I felt like thinking of them as my friends who have been supporting me all along in my career, all along the way I have worked. The Government of India and the people of India have given me so many prizes and so many decorations; I have occupied so many positions in your Committees. So, I felt totally comfortable coming back here, to share with you the thoughts that I had accumulated over the years, to share the things that I have done or acquired or try to do; and that is the subject matter of my presentation today.

It is a great honour and a privilege for me to deliver the 2nd Professor Hiren Mukerjee Memorial Annual Parliamentary Lecture in honour of the formidable academician and parliamentarian, Professor Hiren Mukerjee. I am very proud to pay my respects to an individual whose commitment to social justice spanned over 60 years, until his death in 2004.

Hiren Babu‘s commitment to the plight of the oppressed and exploited during his entire life has inspired many. His gift of oratory has captivated and enlightened individuals across the political spectrum. Indeed, Hiren Babu‘s faith in the ability of all people, including the poor, to change their own lives for the better.
Professor Hirendra Nath Mukerjee has been one of the 20th century's best examples of the intellectual prowess in South Asia. If our human resources are nurtured and simply given a chance to grow, I am certain we can all change our economic and social situations dramatically. I pay tribute to the memory of this great son of this region who dedicated himself to improving the life of the poor people at the very bottom. Professor Mukerjee tried to address the poverty issue politically. I first got involved with poverty as an academician, and then I got involved personally, almost by accident.

I got involved with poverty because it was all around me. If you recall the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh, that famine pushed me out of the university campus. In disaster situations, most of us take up our social roles unhesitatingly. But in my case what began in a time of crisis became a life-long calling. I gave up my academic position and founded a bank in the process — a bank for the poor people. In 1974, I found it extremely difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the classroom while a terrible famine was raging outside. Suddenly I felt the emptiness of economic theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty. I realized that I had to leave the campus and somehow make myself useful to the distressed people of Jobra, the village next door to the university campus. In trying to discover what I could do to help, I learned many things about Jobra, about the people, and about their helplessness. I came face to face with the struggle of poor people to find the tiniest amounts of money needed to support their efforts to eke out a living. I was shocked to meet a woman who had borrowed just five taka from a money-lender. The condition of the loan was, she would have to sell all her products to him at a price he would decide. A five-taka loan transformed her into a virtual slave. To understand the scope of this money-lending practice in that village, I made a list of the people who had borrowed from the money-lenders. When my list was complete, I had 42 names in the list. These people had borrowed a total of taka 856 from the money-lenders. To free these 42 people from the clutches of the money lenders, I gave them the money from my pocket to repay the loans. The excitement that was created in the village by this small action touched me very deeply. I thought, "If this little action makes so many people so happy, why shouldn't I do more of this?" That's what I have been trying to do ever since. The first thing I did was to try to persuade the bank located in the university campus to lend money to the poor in the next door village. But the bank manager refused to do that. He said, "The poor do not qualify to take loans from the bank — they are not creditworthy". I argued with him about this for several months and also his senior officials in the banking hierarchy tried to persuade him but no result.

So I offered to become a guarantor for loans to the poor people. The bank agreed to accept this proposal. By the middle of 1976, I started giving out loans to the village poor, taking personal responsibility for their repayment. I came up with some ideas for making it easier for people to repay the money they had borrowed. These ideas worked. People paid back the loans on time, every time. It seems to me that lending money to the poor was not as difficult as it was imagined. But I kept confronting difficulties in trying to expand the programme through the existing banks. Finally, I decided to create a separate bank for the poor people. I succeeded in creating that bank in 1983. We called it Grameen Bank. Today, Grameen Bank is a nationwide bank serving the poor in every single village of Bangladesh. It has 8 million borrowers, 97 per cent of whom are women. The bank is owned by the borrowers. The members of the Board are elected by the borrowers as shareholders. Grameen Bank lends out over $100 million a month in collateral-free loans averaging about $200. It encourages children of Grameen families to go to school. The women and the borrowers are totally illiterate. But we wanted to make sure that children go to school and we succeeded in having all their children to go to school. Then we offered education loans when these children came to college level and university level so that they are not turned down because they come from poor families. So, the Grameen Bank keeps on giving loans to support all the cost of education for all the children who come to the college level. Right now, there are more than 42,000 students who are currently pursuing their education in medical schools, engineering schools, and universities, entirely financed by education loans from Grameen Bank. Some of them have completed their Ph.D. and we feel good that the new generation is emerging among the illiterate poor women. We encourage these young people to take a pledge that they will never enter job market as job seekers and we encourage them to believe that they are job-givers and not job seekers. We explain to them that their mothers own a big bank - Grameen Bank. It has plenty of money to finance any enterprise that they wish to float. So, why should they waste time looking for a job working for somebody else? Instead, they should be an employer, rather than an employee.

Grameen Bank is financially self-reliant. All of its funds come from the deposits that it mobilizes. Everywhere they open their branches. More than half of the deposits come from the borrowers themselves, who are required to open a bank account as soon as they join Grameen Bank to save a little bit of money every week. They have a collective savings balance of over half a billion US dollars right now. The repayment rate on loan is very high, about 98 per cent, despite the fact that Grameen Bank focuses on the poorest people – those that other banks called non-creditworthy. I raised the question whether banks should tell whether people are creditworthy or not or people should tell whether the banks are people-worthy.

Grameen Bank even gives loans to beggars. They use the loans to start the business of selling goods from door to door, rather than begging door to door. Beggars liked the idea. We introduced this programme four years back and now we have over 100,000 beggars in this programme. During the four years since this programme was launched, over 18,000 beggars have quit begging completely. They became self-reliant sales persons. When people ask what happened to others, I tell them that they are part-time beggars now because they are mixing begging and selling at the same time and gradually trying to build their way out of begging completely.

The idea of small, collateral-free loans for poor women, known as "microcredit", or "microfinance", has spread all around the world. There are now Grameen-type programmes in almost every single country in the world. We even run a programme named "Grameen America" in New York City. It is now branching out to Omaha, Nebraska, and San Francisco, California. Even in the richest country in the world with the most sophisticated banking system, there is a huge need for a bank dedicated to serving the poor because there are millions of people who cannot receive any financial service from their banks even in United States and also countries in Europe.

When I meet Grameen Bank borrowers, I often meet mother-daughter and mother-son pairs when I visit their homes in which the mother is totally illiterate, while the daughter or son is a medical doctor or an engineer. A thought always flashes through my mind: the mother could have been a doctor or an engineer too. She has the same capability as her daughter or son. The only reason she could not unleash her potential is that the society never gave her the chance. She could not even go to school to learn the alphabet.

The more time you spend among poor people, the more you become totally convinced that poverty is not created by poor people. It is created by the system that we have built, the institutions that we have designed, the concepts we have formulated. Poverty is an artificial, external imposition on a human being, it is not innate in a human being. And since it is external, it can be removed. It is all a question of doing it.

Poverty is created by deficiencies in the institutions that we have built. For example, financial institutions. Financial Institutions refuse to provide financial services to nearly two-thirds of the world‘s population. For generations, they claimed that it could not be done, and everybody accepted that explanation. This allowed loan sharks to thrive all over the world. Grameen Bank questioned this assumption and demonstrated that lending money to the poorest in a sustainable way is possible. Now it is demonstrated that it works better than those banks because in the financial crisis we have seen how other banks are crumbling and how microfinance is thriving. We have no problems whatsoever.

During the current financial crisis, the falsity of the old assumption became even more visible. While big conventional banks with all their big collateral were collapsing, micro-credit programmes which do not depend on collateral, continued to be as strong as ever. Will this demonstration make the mainstream financial institutions change their minds? Will they finally open their doors to the poor people? I leave this question to you.

I am quite serious about this question because when a crisis is at its deepest, it can offer a huge opportunity. When things fall apart, that creates the opportunity to redesign, recast and rebuild. We should not miss this opportunity to redesign our financial institutions. When we are in a financial crisis, let us convert them into inclusive institutions. Nobody should be refused access to financial services. Because these services are so vital for self-realization of human beings, I strongly feel that credit should be given the status of a human right.

Every human being is born into this world fully equipped not only to take care of himself or herself, but also to contribute to the well being of the world as a whole. Some get the chance to explore their potential, but many others never get the chance to unwrap the wonderful gifts they are carrying with them. They die with those gifts unexplored, unwrapped and the world remains deprived of their contribution.

Grameen has given me an unshakeable faith in the creativity of human beings and the firm belief that human beings are not born to suffer the misery of hunger and poverty.

We can create a poverty-free world if we collectively believe in it – a world in which the only place you would be able to see poverty is in poverty museums. Some day, school children will be taken to visit these poverty museums. They will be horrified to see the misery and indignity that some human beings had to go through. They will blame their ancestors for tolerating this inhuman condition for so long.

To me, poor people are like bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed from the tallest tree in a tiny flower-pot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted, only the soil-base that you gave it is totally inadequate. Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong with their seeds, but society never gave them the proper base to grow on. All it takes to get poor people out of poverty is for us to create an enabling environment for them. Once the poor can unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.

Let me return to the current financial crisis. Unfortunately, the media coverage gives the impression that, once we fix this financial crisis, all our troubles will be over. We forget that the financial crisis is only one of several crises that are threatening humankind. We are also suffering a global food crisis, an energy crisis, an environmental crisis, a health care crisis, and the continuing social and economic crisis of poverty. These crises are as important as the financial crisis, although they have not received as much attention as the financial crisis.

Furthermore, the media coverage may give the impression that these are disconnected crises that are taking place simultaneously, just by accident. That‘s not true at all. In fact, these crises grow from the same root and I think it is a fundamental flaw in our theoretical construct of capitalism.

The biggest flaw in our existing theory of capitalism lies in its misrepresentation of human beings. In the present interpretation of capitalism, human beings engaged in business are portrayed as one-dimensional beings whose only mission is to maximize profit. This is a much distorted picture of a real human being. Human beings are not money-making robots. The essential fact about human beings is that they are multi-dimensional beings. Their happiness comes from many different sources, not just from making money.

Yet economic theory has built the whole theory of business on the assumption that human beings do nothing in their economic lives other than pursue their self interests of making money. The theory concludes that the optimal result for society will occur when each individual‘s search for selfish benefit is given free rein. This interpretation of human beings denies the role to other aspects of life –political, social, emotional, spiritual, environmental, etc.

No doubt human beings are selfish beings but we must not forget that human beings are selfless beings too. Yet this selfless dimension of human beings has no role in economics. This distorted view of human nature is the fatal flaw that makes our economic thinking incomplete and inaccurate. Over time, it has helped to create the multiple crises we face today.

Once we recognise this flaw in our theoretical structure, the solution is obvious. We can easily replace the one-dimensional person in economic theory with a multi-dimensional person – a person who has both selfish and selfless interests at the same time.

Immediately our picture of the business world changes completely. We now see the need for two kinds of businesses, one for personal gain, that is, profit maximization, another dedicated to helping others. In one kind of business, the objective is to maximise economic gains for the owners, even if this leaves nothing for others, while in the second kind of business, everything is for the benefit of others and nothing is for the owners – except the pleasure of serving humanity.

Let us call this second type of business, which is built on the selfless part of human nature, as "social business". This is what our economic theory has been lacking.

A social business is a business where an investor aims to help others without taking any financial gain whatsoever. At the same time, the social business generates enough income to cover its own costs. Any surplus is invested in expansion of the business or for increased benefits to society. The social business is a non-loss, non-dividend company dedicated entirely to achieving a social goal.

Will anybody in the real world be interested in creating businesses with selfless objectives? Where would the money for social business come from? I am always asked this question.

Judging by the real human beings I know, many people will be delighted to create businesses for selfless purposes. Some have already created such businesses. I will give briefs on some of them a little later.

Regarding the source of fund, one source can easily be the philanthropy money going for creating social businesses. This makes enormous sense. One problem with charity programmes is that they remain perpetually dependent on donations. They cannot stand on their own two feet. Charity money goes out to do good things, but that money never comes back. It is a one-way route. But if a charity programme can be converted into a social business that supports itself, it becomes a powerful undertaking. Now, the money invested is recycled endlessly. A charity taka has one life, but a social business taka has endless life. That is the power of social business.

Besides philanthropists, many other people will invest in social businesses just to share the joy of making a difference in other people‘s lives. People will give not only money for social business but also they will bring their own creativity, networking skills, technological prowess, life experience, and other resources to create social businesses that can change the world.

Once our economic theory adjusts to the multi-dimensional reality of human nature, students will learn in their schools and colleges that there are two kinds of businesses in the world – traditional money-making businesses and social businesses. As they grow up, they will think about what kind of company they will invest in and what kind of company they will work for. And many young people who dream of a better world will think about what kind of social business they would like to create. Young people, when they are still in schools, may start designing social businesses, and even launch social businesses individually or collectively to express their creative talents in changing the world.

Like any good idea, the concept of social business needs practical demonstration. So, I have started creating social businesses in Bangladesh.

Some of them are created in partnership with large multi-national companies. The first such joint venture with a multi-national company was created in 2005, in partnership with the French dairy company, called Danone. The Grameen-Danone social business is aimed at reducing malnutrition among the children of Bangladesh. Just about fifty per cent of Bangladesh‘s children suffer from malnutrition. The Grameen-Danone Company produces a delicious yogurt for children and sells it at a price affordable to the poor. This yogurt is fortified with all the micro-nutrients which are missing in the children‘s ordinary diet. We put vitamins, iron, zinc, iodine, etc. into the yogurt. If a child eats two cups of yogurt a week over a period of eight to nine months, the child gets back all the micro-nutrients he or she needs and becomes a healthy, playful child.

As a social business, Grameen-Danone follows the basic principle that it must be self-sustaining, and the owners must remain committed never to take any dividend beyond the return of the original amount they invested. The success of the company will be judged each year not by the amount of profit generated by the company, but by the number of children getting out of malnutrition every year.

Many other big companies are now approaching us to create social businesses jointly with us. They want to create joint ventures with Grameen because they want to make sure that social business they do, it is done in the right way. Once they become experienced in social businesses, they will take the concept wherever the need exists.

We have a joint-venture social business with Veolia, a large French water company. Bangladesh has a serious arsenic problem in our world. Almost half of the people of Bangladesh drink arsenic-contaminated water, meaning literally drinking poison everyday. The Grameen-Veolia Water Company was created to bring safe drinking water in the villages of Bangladesh where arsenic contamination of water is a huge problem. Villagers are buying water from the company at an affordable price instead of drinking contaminated water.

BASF is a chemical company of Germany that has signed a joint-venture agreement to produce chemically treated mosquito-nets in Bangladesh as a social business. The BASF-Grameen joint-venture company will produce and sell these mosquito-nets as cheaply as possible to make it affordable to the poorest people. The company will have to be self-sustaining, but there is no intention of BASF taking any profit or Grameen taking any profit out of the company beyond the amount invested.

Our joint-venture social business with Intel Corporation of the USA, Grameen-Intel, aims at using information and communication technology to help solve the problems of the rural poor- for example, by providing health care in the villages by using IT.

Our joint-venture with Adidas, a big shoe and sports company in Germany, aims at producing shoes for the lowest income people at an affordable price. The goal of the Grameen-Adidas company is to make sure that no one, child or adult, in Bangladesh goes without shoes. This is a health intervention to make sure that people in the rural areas, particularly children, do not have to suffer from the parasitic diseases that can be transmitted by walking barefoot.

Grameen-Otto is about to set up a garment factory as a social business in collaboration with Otto, a large chain store and mail-order company in Germany. Profit of the company will be used for the improvement of the quality of lives of the employees, their children and their family members and the poor of the neighbourhood.

As these examples show, social business is not just a pleasant idea. It is a reality, one that is already beginning to make positive changes in people‘s lives.
Many more social businesses are on the way. One attractive area of social businesses will be in creating jobs in special locations or for particularly disadvantaged people. Since a social business company operates free from the pressure of earning profit for the owners, the scope of investment opportunities is much greater than with profit-maximizing companies. Profit-maximizing companies need to be assured of a certain minimum level of return on their investment before they will invest and create jobs. A social business does not need to fulfil such a condition. It can easily invest below that level and go down even to near-zero profit level, and, in the process open up some opportunities for creating jobs for many people which is an exciting area of social business for job creation.
Another area of social business is in afforestation. Forests are being denuded all around the world by individuals, greedy businesses and, in some cases, by Government officials who are paid by the tax-payers to protect the forests. They become the instrument in denuding the forests. This is having a documented negative impact on climate change. Planting trees across huge tracts of land could be an excellent area for social business. This opportunity, we cannot afford to ignore for saving our planet.

Healthcare is another highly potential area for social business. Public delivery of healthcare in most cases is inefficient and often fails to reach the people who need the healthcare the most. Private healthcare caters to the needs of the high-income people. The big empty space between the two can be filled by social businesses.
In Bangladesh, Grameen Healthcare Company is trying to create social businesses to fill this gap in the healthcare system. We are trying to develop a prototype of health management centres in the villages to keep healthy people healthy by concentrating on prevention and offering diagnostic and health check-up services and offering health insurance programmes, etc. We are making efforts to take advantage of the universal availability of mobile phones. We are in the process of working with the leading manufacturers to design diagnostic equipment that can transmit images and data in real time to city-based health experts through the mobile phones.
Grameen Healthcare is in the process of setting up of a series of Nursing Colleges as social business to train girls from Grameen Bank families as nurses.

Bangladesh has an enormous shortage of nursing professionals. The global shortage of nurses is also quite enormous. There is no reason why a vast number of young girls should be sitting around in the villages, getting married and have children while these attractive job opportunities are going unfilled.
Grameen Healthcare is also planning to set up secondary and tertiary health services, all designed as social businesses. To train a new generation of doctors to staff our social business healthcare facilities, Grameen Healthcare wants to set up a University of Health Sciences and Technology.

Many other segments of healthcare are appropriate for building successful social businesses—nutrition, water — which I mentioned — health insurance, health education and training, eye-care, mother-care and child-care, diagnostic services, etc. It will take time to develop the prototypes. But once creative minds come up with the design for a social business and a prototype is developed successfully, it can be replicated endlessly.

Designing each small social business is like developing a seed. Once the seed is developed, anybody can plant it wherever it is needed. Since each unit is self-sustaining, funding does not become a big obstacle.

The world today is in possession of amazingly powerful technology. That technology is growing very fast, becoming more powerful every day. Almost all of this technology is owned and controlled by profit-making businesses. All they use this technology for is to make more money for themselves, because that is the mandate given to them by their shareholders. Imagine what we can achieve if we use the same technology to solve the problems of the people!
Technology is a kind of a vehicle. One can drive this to any destination one wants. Since the present owners of technology want to travel to the peaks of profit-making, technology takes them there. If somebody else decides to use the existing technology to end poverty, it will take the owner in that direction. If another owner wants to use it to end diseases, technology will go there. The choice is ours. Present theoretical framework does not give this choice. Inclusion of social business creates this choice.

One more point. There will be no need to make an either/or choice. Using technology for one purpose does not make it less effective for serving a different purpose. Actually, it is the other way round. The more diverse use we make of technology, the more powerful the technology becomes. Using technology for solving social problems will not reduce its effectiveness for money-making use, but rather enhance it.

The owners of social businesses can direct the power of technology to solve our growing list of social and economic problems, and get quick results.

Once the concept of social business becomes widely known, creative people will come forward with attractive designs for social businesses. Young people will develop business plans to address the most difficult social problems they see around them. The good ideas will need to be funded. I am happy to say there are already initiatives in Europe and Japan to create Social Business Funds to provide equity and loan support to social businesses.

In time, more sources of funding will be needed. Each level of government – international, national, state and city – can create Social Business Funds to encourage citizens and companies to create social businesses designed to address specific social problems such as unemployment, health, sanitation, pollution, old age, drug, crime, disadvantaged groups – the disabled, etc. Bilateral and multilateral donors can create Social Business Funds. Foundations can earmark a percentage of their funds to support social businesses. Businesses can use their social responsibility budgets to fund social businesses.

We will soon need to create a separate stock market for social businesses to make it easy for small investors to invest in social businesses. Only social businesses will be listed in this Social Stock Market. Investors will know right from the beginning that they will never receive any dividends when they invest in
Social Stock Market. Their motivation will be to enjoy the pride and pleasure of helping to solve difficult social problems around them.
Social business gives everybody the opportunity to participate in creating the kind of world that we all want to see. Thanks to the concept of social business, citizens do not have to leave all problems on the shoulders of the government and then spend their life time criticizing the government for failing to solve them. Now citizens have a completely new space in which to mobilize their creativity and talent for solving the problems themselves. Seeing the effectiveness of social business, governments may decide to create their own social businesses or partner with citizen-run social businesses and/or incorporate the lessons from the social businesses to improve the effectiveness of their own programmes.

Governments will have an important role to play in the promotion of social business. They will need to pass legislation to give legal recognition to social business and create regulatory bodies to ensure transparency, integrity and honesty. They can also provide tax incentives for investing in social businesses as well as for social businesses themselves.

The wonderful promise of social business makes it all the more important that we redefine and broaden our present economic framework. We need a new way of thinking about economics that is not prone to creating series of crises; instead, it should be capable of ending the crises once for all. Now is the time for bold and creative thinking and we need to move fast, because the world is changing very fast. The first piece of this new framework must be to accommodate social business as an integral part of the economic structure.

In this context, let me raise another question.

What will be world be like twenty years or fifty years from now? More specifically, what will South Asia be like? It is fascinating to speculate about this. But I think an even more important question is: What do we want the world and specifically South Asia to be like twenty years or fifty years from today?

The difference from the two questions has great significance. In the first formulation, we see ourselves as passive viewers of unfolding events. In the second, we see ourselves as active creators of a desired outcome. I think it is time to take charge of our own future rather than accept our future passively. We spend too much time and talent in predicting the future and not enough on imagining the future that we would love to see. And even so, we do not do a very good job in predicting the future. With all our wisdom, all our expertise and all our experience, we repeatedly fail to imagine the amazing changes that history continues to throw our way.

We never foresee even.

Think back to the 1940s. Nobody then predicted that, within fifty years, Europe would become a borderless political entity with a single currency. Nobody predicted that the Berlin Wall will fall even a week before it happened. Nobody predicted that the Soviet Union will disintegrate and so many independent countries will emerge out of it so fast.

On the technology front, we see the same thing. In the sixties, no one predicted that a global network of computers called the internet would soon be taking the whole world by storm. No one predicted that lap-tops, palm-tops, Blackberries, iPods, iPhones, and Kindles would be in the hands of millions of people very soon. Even twenty years ago, no one was predicting that mobile phones would become such an integral part of life in every single village everywhere.
Let us admit it; we could not predict the world of 2010 even from 1990 – a span of only 20 years. Does this give us any credibility in predicting the world of 2030 from today, given the fact that each day the speed of change of the world is getting faster and faster?

If we have to make predictions, there are probably two ways to go about it. One would be to invite the best scientific, technical and economic analysis in the world to make their smartest 20 year projections. Another would be to ask our most brilliant science fiction writers around the world to imagine the world of
2030. If you ask me who has the best chance of coming closer to the reality of 2030, without pausing for a second I would say that the science-fiction writers will be far closer to the reality of 2030 than the expert analysts.

The reason is very simple. Experts are trained to make forecasts on the basis of the past and present, but events in the real world are driven by the dreams of people, not the past and the present.

We can describe the world of 2030 by preparing a wish-list, our dream wish-list. This wish-list will describe the kind of world we would like to create in 2030. That is what we should prepare for.

Dreams are made out of impossibles. We cannot reach the impossibles by using the analytical minds which are trained to deal with hard information which is currently available. These minds are fitted with flashing red lights to warn us about obstacles that we may face. We will have to put our minds in a different mode when we think about our future. We will have to dare to make bold leaps in our minds to make the impossibles possible. As soon as one impossible becomes possible, it shakes up the structure and creates a domino effect, preparing the ground for making many other impossibles possible.

We will have to believe in our wish-list if we hope to make it come true. We will have to create appropriate concepts, institutions, technologies and policies to achieve our goals. We cannot achieve our wish-list by following the old concepts and old institutions. The more impossible the goals look, the more exciting the task becomes.

Fortunately for us, we have entered into an age when dreams have the best chance to come true. We must organise the present to allow an easy entry into the future of our dreams. We must not let our past stand on our way. Past should not be a trap, past should be a foundation to jump into the future.

Let us dream that by 2030, we will create a well-functioning South Asian Union. There will be no visas required, no customs limiting travels among the South Asian countries. There will be a common flag along side our national flags, a common currency, and a large area of common domestic and international policies.
Let us dream that by 2030, we will make South Asia the first poverty-free region in the world. Let us prepare to challenge the world to find one single poor person anywhere in South Asia.

Let us dream that by 2030, South Asia will set up a reliable state-of-the-art healthcare system that will provide affordable healthcare for every single person.
Let us dream that by 2030, we will create a robust financial system to provide easy access to financial services to every single person in South Asia.
Let us dream that by 2030, the first career choice for every child growing up in South Asia will not be to work for some company but to launch his or her own company.

Let us dream that by 2030, we will have a range of creative and effective social businesses working throughout South Asia to solve all our remaining social problems.

Do all these dreams sound impossible? If they do, that means they are likely to come true if we believe in them and work for them. That is what the history of the last fifty years has taught us.

So, let us agree to believe in these dreams of our future, and dedicate ourselves to making these impossible possible.

Thank you very much.

It's the protesters who offer the best hope for our planet

Johann Hari:

They've ensured the corporate lobbyists punching holes in the the deal are shamed
At first glance, the Copenhagen climate summit seems like a Salvador Dali dreamscape. I just saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu being followed by a swarm of Japanese students who were dressed as aliens and carrying signs saying "Take Me To Your Leader" and "Is Your Species Crazy?". Before that, a group of angry black-clad teenage protesters who were carrying spray cans started quoting statistics to me about how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere can safely absorb. (It's 350 parts per million they pointed out, before sucking their teeth.) Before that, I saw a couple in a pantomime cow costume being attacked by the police, who accused them of throwing stones with their hooves.

But the surrealism runs deeper and darker than this. Inside the Bella Centre, the rich world's leaders are defiantly ignoring their scientists and refusing to sign a deal that will prevent our climate from being dramatically destabilised. The scientific consensus shows the rich world needs to cut 40 per cent of our emissions of warming gases from 1990 levels by 2020 if we're going to have even a 50-50 chance of staying this side of the Point of No Return, when the Earth's natural processes start to break down and warming becomes unstoppable. Yet the scientists at Climate Analytics calculate our governments are offering a dismal 8-12 per cent cut - and once you factor in all the loopholes and accounting tricks, it becomes a net increase of four per cent.

Privately, government negotiators admit there's no way the negotiations will end with the deal scientists say is necessary for our safety. Indeed, it looks possible that this conference won't deepen and broaden the Kyoto framework, but cripple it. Kyoto established a legally binding international framework to measure and reduce emissions. The cuts it required were too small, and the sanctions for breaking it were pitifully weak - but it was a start. Kyoto's current phase expires in 2012, but the treaty's authors believed its architecture would be retained and intensified after that. The developing countries assumed that's what they were here to do. But the US is proposing to simply ditch the Kyoto infrastructure - won over decades of long negotiations - and replace it with an even weaker voluntary deal. In their proposal, every country will announce cuts and stick to them out of the goodness of their hearts. No penalties, no enforcement.

So at the centre of this summit is a proposition stranger than any number of arrested cows or Nasa-quoting hoodies: we're playing Russian roulette with the climate, and our most powerful governments are filling the barrels with extra bullets, one by one.

Yet this conflagration here in Copenhagen is heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. Our governments are showing their moral bankruptcy - but a genuinely global democratic movement is swelling to make them change course. Mass democratic agitation is the only force that has ever made governments moral before; it will have to do it again.

An army of dedicated campaigners is gathering here, and they are prepared to take real risks to oppose this sham-deal. The protest march on Saturday here must have been the most genuinely global demonstration in history. Under banners saying "There Is No Planet B", "Nature Doesn't Do Bailouts" and "Change the Politics, Not the Climate", there seemed to be people from every nation on earth. Lawrence Muli from Kenya's youth delegation told me: "We are having the worst drought in memory in Kenya. The seasons have changed in ways we don't understand. My family can't grow crops any more, so they are going hungry. I am here to say we won't die quietly."

Next to him was Bhuwan Sambhu from Nepal, who has seen his glaciers retreat dramatically in his short lifetime. Just behind them was Manuel Wiechers from Mexico City, who said his hometown has been devastated by the worst rains on record. At his side was Utte Richter, a 76-year-old German woman who said: "It would be immoral to stay at home when these decisions were being made, with everything they mean for the world. This system is near the end of the road, and we must change to a new way."

The same arguments are heard in the corridors of the Bella Centre, where the representatives of the poor countries are refusing to sign up to a deal that will dry out or drown much of their land. The government of Tuvalu - the low-lying island that is already being drowned by rising seas - has calmly, with great dignity, interrupted meetings that presume we can carry on emitting carbon, pointing out this means "we will die". Lumumba Di-Aping, the chief negotiator for the G77 block of developing countries, wept as he explained: "The more you defer action, the more you condemn millions of people to immeasurable suffering." He said our governments are acting "like climate sceptics. If they really believed global warming was happening, how could they do this?"

Today, these two strands of protest - inside the conference, and outside - will combine. Some of the delegates are expected to walk out of the Bella Centre talks in disgust. At the same time, brave young protesters supporting their message will be trying to break in, to express their revulsion at the betrayal of us all going on there. Of course, the parts of the global media that serve the interests of the polluting rich will be keen to shift the story on to "vandals" and "violent protest". There may be a minuscule minority of protesters who behave unacceptably. But in reality, there are two forms of vandalism about to happen in this city. There is the cutting of a few fences as part of an act of mass civil disobedience. It is an attempt to symbolically resist the much bigger act of vandalism - the trashing of our own habitat, by leaders too short-sighted and too money-addled to listen to the science.

Isn't it violent to knowingly condemn whole countries to drown? Isn't it vandalism to knowingly let the world's most crucial farming land crust over, its most precious rivers run dry, and its hurricanes become super-charged? Isn't that immeasurably worse than breaking a fence and cutting a cordon? Couldn't resistance to this destruction-machine justify this tiny act of destruction? The young protesters who will do this have proved themselves, so far, the sanest force in town. They have ensured that the corporate lobbyists punching holes in the deal are followed and shamed wherever they meet. They chant: "It's not your business - it's our climate."

When I hear the activists, I remember something Farley Mowat, the Canadian conservationist, wrote in the 1990s: "The last three decades of this century have witnessed the ignition of the most significant internal conflict ever to engage the human species. It is not the struggle between capitalism and communism or between any other set of 'isms'. It is the conflict between those who possess the means and will to exploit the living world to destruction, and those who are banding together in a desperate and last-ditch attempt to prevent the New Juggernaut from trashing our small planet."

This week, the small band of the sane got a little bit bigger and a lot more global. For today, it is vastly outgunned by the forces of ecological destruction, and it will certainly not be able to ensure a sane deal in Copenhagen. But think of all the other movements that were small at first and held up impossible dreams. They called him "Martin Loser King"; they said civil rights would never come; now everyone says he was right and there's a black President (although alas not a green one).

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu pointed out here, they said the Berlin Wall would never fall, and they said apartheid would never die; now they say we cannot make the transition from an economy powered by coal and oil to one powered by the sun, the wind and the waves. But unlike previous protest movements, we can't wait for it to accumulate speed over generations. Each tonne of carbon brings us closer to climatic - and climactic - tipping points. This is a leap human beings must make in one generation.

We know it can be done. We have the knowledge and the science. If we refuse to do it - out of inertia and denial and so a few fossil fuel corporations can carrying on raking in profit and bribing our politicians - that will be this summit's most surreal scene of all.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

This is bigger than climate change. It is a battle to redefine humanity


It's hard for a species used to ever-expanding frontiers, but survival depends on accepting we live within limits



This is the moment at which we turn and face ourselves. Here, in the plastic corridors and crowded stalls, among impenetrable texts and withering procedures, humankind decides what it is and what it will become. It chooses whether to continue living as it has done, until it must make a wasteland of its home, or to stop and redefine itself. This is about much more than climate change. This is about us.
The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.
The summit's premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint. No longer may we swing our fists regardless of whose nose might be in the way. In everything we do we must now be mindful of the lives of others, cautious, constrained, meticulous. We may no longer live in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow.
This is a meeting about chemicals: the greenhouse gases insulating the atmosphere. But it is also a battle between two world views. The angry men who seek to derail this agreement, and all such limits on their self-fulfilment, have understood this better than we have. A new movement, most visible in North America and Australia, but now apparent everywhere, demands to trample on the lives of others as if this were a human right. It will not be constrained by taxes, gun laws, regulations, health and safety, especially by environmental restraints. It knows that fossil fuels have granted the universal ape amplification beyond its Palaeolithic dreams. For a moment, a marvellous, frontier moment, they allowed us to live in blissful mindlessness.


The angry men know that this golden age has gone; but they cannot find the words for the constraints they hate. Clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged, they flail around, accusing those who would impede them of communism, fascism, religiosity, misanthropy, but knowing at heart that these restrictions are driven by something far more repulsive to the unrestrained man: the decencies we owe to other human beings.


I fear this chorus of bullies, but I also sympathise. I lead a mostly peaceful life, but my dreams are haunted by giant aurochs. All those of us whose blood still races are forced to sublimate, to fantasise. In daydreams and video games we find the lives that ecological limits and other people's interests forbid us to live.

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits. The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.


So here we are, in the land of Beowulf's heroics, lost in a fog of acronyms and euphemisms, parentheses and exemptions, the deathly diplomacy required to accommodate everyone's demands. There is no space for heroism here; all passion and power breaks against the needs of others. This is how it should be, though every neurone revolts against it.

Although the delegates are waking up to the scale of their responsibility, I still believe they will sell us out. Everyone wants his last adventure. Hardly anyone among the official parties can accept the implications of living within our means, of living with tomorrow in mind. There will, they tell themselves, always be another frontier, another means to escape our constraints, to dump our dissatisfactions on other places and other people. Hanging over everything discussed here is the theme that dare not speak its name, always present but never mentioned. Economic growth is the magic formula which allows our conflicts to remain unresolved.
While economies grow, social justice is unnecessary, as lives can be improved without redistribution. While economies grow, people need not confront their elites. While economies grow, we can keep buying our way out of trouble. But, like the bankers, we stave off trouble today only by multiplying it tomorrow. Through economic growth we are borrowing time at punitive rates of interest. It ensures that any cuts agreed at Copenhagen will eventually be outstripped. Even if we manage to prevent climate breakdown, growth means that it's only a matter of time before we hit a new constraint, which demands a new global response: oil, water, phosphate, soil. We will lurch from crisis to existential crisis unless we address the underlying cause: perpetual growth cannot be accommodated on a finite planet.


For all their earnest self-restraint, the negotiators in the plastic city are still not serious, even about climate change. There's another great unmentionable here: supply. Most of the nation states tussling at Copenhagen have two fossil fuel policies. One is to minimise demand, by encouraging us to reduce our consumption. The other is to maximise supply, by encouraging companies to extract as much from the ground as they can.


We know, from the papers published in Nature in April, that we can use a maximum of 60% of current reserves of coal, oil and gas if the average global temperature is not to rise by more than two degrees. We can burn much less if, as many poorer countries now insist, we seek to prevent the temperature from rising by more than 1.5C. We know that capture and storage will dispose of just a small fraction of the carbon in these fuels. There are two obvious conclusions: governments must decide which existing reserves of fossil fuel are to be left in the ground, and they must introduce a global moratorium on prospecting for new reserves. Neither of these proposals has even been mooted for discussion.

But somehow this first great global battle between expanders and restrainers must be won and then the battles that lie beyond it – rising consumption, corporate power, economic growth – must begin. If governments don't show some resolve on climate change, the expanders will seize on the restrainers' weakness. They will attack – using the same tactics of denial, obfuscation and appeals to self-interest – the other measures that protect people from each other, or which prevent the world's ecosystems from being destroyed. There is no end to this fight, no line these people will not cross. They too are aware that this a battle to redefine humanity, and they wish to redefine it as a species even more rapacious than it is today.

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Friday, 11 December 2009

Leaders of the rich world are enacting a giant fraud

December 11, 2009 Johann Hari:

Corporate lobbyists can pressure or bribe governments to rig the system in their favour

Every delegate to the Copenhagen summit is being greeted by the sight of a vast fake planet dominating the city's central square. This swirling globe is covered with corporate logos - the Coke brand is stamped over Africa, while Carlsberg appears to own Asia, and McDonald's announces "I'm loving it!" in great red letters above. "Welcome to Hopenhagen!" it cries. It is kept in the sky by endless blasts of hot air.
This plastic planet is the perfect symbol for this summit. The world is being told that this is an emergency meeting to solve the climate crisis - but here inside the Bela Centre where our leaders are gathering, you can find only a corrupt shuffling of words, designed to allow countries to wriggle out of the bare minimum necessary to prevent the unravelling of the biosphere.
Staggering across the fringes of the summit are the people who will see their countries live or die on the basis of its deliberations. Leah Wickham, a young woman from Fiji, broke down as she told the conference she will see her homeland disappear beneath the waves if we do not act now. "All the hopes of my generation rest on Copenhagen," she pleaded. Dazed Chinese and Indian NGOs explain how the Himalayan ice is rapidly vanishing and will be gone by 2035 - so the great rivers of Asia that are born there will shrivel and cease. They provide water for a quarter of humanity.
Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the drowning Maldives, said simply: "The last generation of humans went to the moon. This generation of humans needs to decide if it wants to stay alive on planet Earth."
We know what has to happen to give us a fighting chance of avoiding catastrophe. We need carbon emissions in rich countries to be 40 per cent lower than they were in 1990 - by 2020. We can haggle with each other over how to get there but we can't haggle with atmospheric physics over the end-goal: the Earth's atmosphere has put this limit on what it can absorb, and we can respect it, or suffer.
Yet the first week of this summit is being dominated by the representatives of the rich countries trying to lace the deal with Enron-style accounting tricks that will give the impression of cuts, without the reality. It's essential to understand these shenanigans this week, so we can understand the reality of the deal that will be announced with great razzmatazz next week.
Most of the tricks centre around a quirk in the system: a rich country can "cut" its emissions without actually releasing fewer greenhouse gases. How? It can simply pay a poor country to emit less than it otherwise would have. In theory it sounds okay: we all have the same atmosphere, so who cares where the cuts come from?
But a system where emissions cuts can be sold among countries introduces extreme complexity into the system. It quickly (and deliberately) becomes so technical that nobody can follow it - no concerned citizen, no journalist, and barely even full-time environmental groups. You can see if your government is building more coal power stations, or airports, or motorways. You can't see if the cuts they have "bought" halfway round the world are happening - especially when they are based on projections of increases that would have happened, in theory, if your government hadn't stumped up the cash.
A study by the University of Stanford found that most of the projects that are being funded as "cuts" either don't exist, don't work, or would have happened anyway. Yet this isn't a small side-dish to the deal: it's the main course. For example, under proposals from the US, the country with by far the highest per capita emissions in the world wouldn't need to cut its own gas by a single exhaust pipe until 2026, insisting it'll simply pay for these shadow-projects instead.
It gets worse still. A highly complex system operating in the dark is a gift to corporate lobbyists, who can pressure or bribe governments into rigging the system in their favour, rather than the atmosphere's. It's worth going through some of the scams that are bleeding the system of any meaning. They may sound dull or technical, but they are life or death to countries like Leah's.
Trick one: hot air. The nations of the world were allocated permits to release greenhouse gases back in 1990, when the Soviet Union was still a vast industrial power - so it was given a huge allocation. But the following year, it collapsed, and its industrial base went into freefall - along with its carbon emissions. It was never going to release those gases after all. But Russia and the eastern European countries have held on to them in all negotiations as "theirs". Now, they are selling them to rich countries who want to purchase "cuts". Under the current system, the US can buy them from Romania and say they have cut emissions - even though they are nothing but a legal fiction.
We aren't talking about climatic small change. This hot air represents 10 gigatonnes of CO2. By comparison, if the entire developed world cuts its emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, that will only take six gigatonnes out of the atmosphere.
Trick two: double-counting. This is best understood through an example. If Britain pays China to abandon a coal power station and construct a hydro-electric dam instead, Britain pockets the reduction in carbon emissions as part of our overall national cuts. In return, we are allowed to keep a coal power station open at home. But at the same time, China also counts this change as part of its overall cuts. So one tonne of carbon cuts is counted twice. This means the whole system is riddled with exaggeration - and the figure for overall global cuts is a con.
Trick three: the fake forests - or what the process opaquely dubs "LULUCF". Forests soak up warming gases and store them away from the atmosphere - so, perfectly sensibly, countries get credit under the new system for preserving them. It is an essential measure to stop global warming. But the Canadian, Swedish and Finnish logging companies have successfully pressured their governments into inserting an absurd clause into the rules. The new rules say you can, in the name of "sustainable forest management", cut down almost all the trees - without losing credits. It's Kafkaesque: a felled forest doesn't increase your official emissions... even though it increases your actual emissions.
There are dozens more examples like this, but you and I would lapse into a coma if I listed them. This is deliberate. This system has been made incomprehensible because if we understood, ordinary citizens would be outraged. If these were good faith negotiations, such loopholes would be dismissed in seconds. And the rich countries are flatly refusing to make even these enfeebled, leaky cuts legally binding. You can toss them in the bin the moment you leave the conference centre, and nobody will have any comeback. On the most important issue in the world - the stability of our biosphere - we are being scammed.
Our leaders are aren't giving us Hopenhagen - they're giving us Cokenhagen, a sugary feelgood hit filled with sickly additives and no nutrition. Their behaviour here - where the bare minimum described as safe by scientists isn't even being considered - indicates they are more scared of the corporate lobbyists that fund their campaigns, or the denialist streak in their own country, than of rising seas and falling civilisations.
But there is one reason why I am still - despite everything - defiantly hopeful. Converging on this city now are thousands of ordinary citizens who aren't going to take it any more. They aren't going to watch passively while our ecosystems are vandalised. They are demanding only what the cold, hard science demands - real and rapid cuts, enforced by a global environmental court that will punish any nation that endangers us all. This movement will not go away. Copenhagen has soured into a con - but from the wreckage, there could arise a stronger demand for a true solution.
If we don't raise the political temperature very fast, the physical temperature will rise - and we can say goodbye to Leah, and to the only safe climate we have ever known.

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