Number 562 October 2, 2014

This Week: Environmental Good News!

"Quote" of the Week: This is Why I Don't Respond to Surveys
Cancer. Systems.
Climate Good News #1: Vermont
Climate Good News #2: Saving the Planet Is Cheap. Really!
Climate Good News #3: Ozone Healing


This issue marks the final installment of the Systalectics Series (for now, anyway). The final essay draws on a personal experience of mine to illustrate how a Systalectics approach can change not only one's intellectual approach, but also one's emotional responses to the difficulties—and joys!—that life can bring. Since life invariably includes downs as well as ups, a tool like this one is good for the spirit as well as the mind. Helps with organizing, too.

This week's "Quote" of the Week is about mining in Minnesota. If you're interested in understanding how a rural mining economy works, check out my essay "The Power of Business" from 'way back in Nygaard Notes #72.

I could have written about war, war, and more war this week. But I haven't been feeling well, so I decided to focus on some recent GOOD NEWS about the environment. There is good news, you know. You'll see.



"Quote" of the Week: This is Why I Don't Respond to Surveys

As indigenous people around here have been shouting for a while, we have to transform our unsustainable "extractive economy," where we rip wealth out of the earth, into an economy that serves both jobs AND the environment. That's why I was so dismayed to see the front-page story in my local newspaper, the Star Tribune, on September 19th, reporting on a recent "Minnesota Poll" conducted by the paper. It had to do with Minnesotans' opinions about plans for sulfide mining in Northern Minnesota. A big corporation called The biggest debate around here is about a proposal from a Toronto-based mining corporation called PolyMet. Their plan is to mine for copper, nickel, and other precious metals from sulfide ores up around Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota, which is "Up North," as we say around here. The region has a long history of mining, but it was iron mining, not sulfide mining. I've actually written about iron mining—actually the end of iron mining—in Hoyt Lakes. (If you want a glimpse of the future in a rural mining economy, check out "The Power of Business" 'way back in Nygaard Notes #72.)

Here's what the Minnesota Poll asked respondents: "When it comes to mining minerals, is it more important to protect the environment or provide jobs?" Translation: "Would you rather have polluted rivers and soaring cancer rates or live in a depressed economy for the rest of your life?" Tough question, isn't it? And that's because it's a false choice. Sulfide mining is not the only source of jobs in the region. In fact, in that same day's paper, also on the front page, was news that Northern Minnesota will soon be home to "a $150 million, 1-gigabit fiber optic network, dubbed the GigaZone, that will be one of the nation's largest and fastest rural high-speed networks, starting early next year." How many jobs will follow that investment in 21st-Century infrastructure? Hard to say, but it won't pollute the rivers, and it won't be exhausted in 20 years, as a sulfide mine likely will.

I prefer the question posed by the conservation group "Backcountry Hunters and Anglers." In fact, I like it so much it's the "Quote" of the Week:

"Is 20 years of a couple hundred sulfide mining jobs worth 2,000 years of poisoned waterways and watersheds that will cost the rest of us millions, and possibly billions, to clean up?"


Oddball "Quote" of the Week: "The Route Which I Have Tried To Follow"

I ran across these words a while ago, in the introduction to a book called Practical Reasoning in a Social World. I just like it because I say this to myself all the time:

"Any philosophical book, even the most abstract, is written in a particular political climate. The political climate which surrounds this book is one in which sociability has been downgraded in favor of individual enterprise and individual selfishness has received strengthened cultural endorsement. That is a climate which I find repugnant. But there is more than one way of subjecting it to a critique. One way is to criticize head-on the beliefs of those who subscribe to it. An alternative way of encouraging them to have second thoughts about their current beliefs is to proceed along the indirect route of questioning the security of the grounds on which those beliefs rest in the first place. This indirect route has something to recommend it, given that human beings like to think that their beliefs are well grounded, and it is the one which I have tried to follow."


Cancer. Systems.

In 2001, when my life partner/soulmate was being treated for cancer, the job of managing the bills fell to me. Her insurance had a high deductible, so quite a bit came out of pocket, and the process became quite complicated, as the payments had to wait until some mysterious negotiations were completed between the insurance company and the various "providers."

It's been long enough that I can't recall the specific details. But I do remember that, in this nearly year-long process, I discovered roughly a dozen significant billing errors, adding up to several thousand dollars in total. I had to spend some time correcting these errors with the insurance company, and they all were resolved in the end.

It wasn't until later, when I had time to reflect on it, that I went through the receipts and realized that every single error had been in favor of the insurance company. That is, had I not caught the errors and had simply paid what was billed, in every case we would have paid more than we should have, and the insurance company would have paid less. And, of course, there were probably other errors that I did not catch, but since I didn't catch them I can't discuss them.

When I began mentioning this pattern to friends and relatives, I noticed that most people, if not all, assumed that these errors were the result of someone's intention. That is, they immediately thought that the errors were not really "errors" at all, but instead were the result of fraud, corruption, greed, or some other blameworthy factors. It certainly seems plausible, doesn't it, as a collection of random errors would almost surely result in a mix of outcomes: some in our favor, some in favor of the insurance company. But that's not what happened, so the questions that come to everyone's mind sound like this: How dare they?! What kinds of people would try to defraud a cancer patient?

Maybe they're right, but those questions were not the ones I asked. Since I operate with a Systalectics orientation, I looked for an explanation for the pattern in the workings of the insurance company itself, and also in the larger insurance system in which this company was embedded. I also considered how those systems interact with other systems, larger and smaller, that might produce such a predictable (and suspicious) outcome. Here are a couple of the things I found myself thinking:

1. Individualism tells us to look for culprits, perpetrators, crooks, and frauds. Systalectics tells us to look at how systems work. Therefore, due to a system-wide bias toward Individualism, systems in this culture—including the justice system, the health care system, the regulatory system, the financial system—are much better at detecting individual misbehaviors like fraud, corruption, and greedy behavior than they are at detecting systemic problems. Given that bias, I thought I would have heard about it if there were a pattern of fraud or corruption in billing practices at a business as large and prominent as Blue Cross/Blue Shield. (This is particularly true given my line of work, which leads me to pay attention to the behavior of large and prominent businesses.)

2. Having been a bookkeeper in the past, I am aware that bookkeeping systems can be set up to flag problems as they occur. Since losing money is a problem, and making money is not, it seems reasonable to imagine that an insurance company would—over time, and little by little—accumulate an array of sub-systems and computer "flags" that would be geared to catch certain errors and not others. That is, the institution would learn to "notice" when they are making less money than they think they should (or could), and to not "notice" when they are making more.

(I place "notice" in quotation marks to call attention to the significant but often-obscured fact that corporations are not people, so they can't really "notice" anything. But a corporate system can be set up in which the workers are made to notice things. The interplay between these "noticings" has to do with the nature of systems, which is a large part of the point of this issue of Nygaard Notes, and which leads me to put in the quotation marks and thus this explanatory paragraph. Fun!)

The assumption that this disturbing pattern of billing errors is someone's "fault" leads us to think that, if only the people at Blue Cross/Blue Shield were "nicer," or somehow more morally upstanding, then we would not have the problem. I don't think that's the case at all.

When we view the world using Systalectics, we begin to see the futility of seeking solutions by working at the individual level. Rather than seeing social problems as the result of evil people who want to hurt us, we begin to see human behavior as arising out of the complex interactions of the various systems of which are all simultaneously a part. When we begin to honor the complexity and interrelatedness of the forces that give rise to human behavior we begin to let go of the urge to blame, or to judge, the people whose behavior is causing the problem. That doesn't mean we don't judge the behavior.

The fact is that somebody-or-other at Blue Cross/Blue Shield (nobody ever signs these things) sent us some bills that would have unfairly increased our cancer burden. But for me to be angry with them would be misguided, and also unhelpful in every way. First of all, my anger would have increased the corrosion of my mental, emotional, and spiritual health, as anger so often does. It would also have confused me, by getting me to forget the very basic point that systems have lives of their own, separate and often quite different from the lives of the people in the systems. Forgetting that point would make me a less effective agent of social change, as it leads me to a faulty diagnosis of whatever it is that needs change.

Finally, the individualistic thought process that leads us to look for the roots of problems in the hearts of others involves a judgement of those others that can easily lead to bitterness and cynicism. And those two states of mind—especially cynicism—are toxic indeed, as they are the chronic and debilitating diseases that contribute to the burn-out of activists in every context I've ever seen.

This is not some moralistic argument telling you that it's "wrong" to judge people. It's an argument saying that the biggest problems we face are due not to the evil in people's hearts, but rather to the systems in which we operate, systems that fail to encourage and enable the good in people's hearts. Why do good people do bad things? Systems. How do we change things? Systems.


Climate Good News #1: Vermont

The headline in the Associated Press on September 14th was "In Vermont, a Milestone in Green-Energy Efforts." And what a milestone it is! Here's the first paragraph:

"Vermont's largest city has a new success to add to its list of socially conscious achievements: 100 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable sources such as wind, water and biomass."

True, Burlington is a pretty small town (42,000 or so), but it's still an inspiration to those of us who support a turning away from the Extractive Economy that is so threatening to human, and other, life on the planet. And it's not just Burlington. There is a statewide effort underway in Vermont and, as the AP put it, "It's also a growing movement across the country, as governments and businesses seek to liberate themselves from using power produced by environmentally harmful fossil fuels." (I think "liberate" is the perfect word here!)

The AP quoted the founding director of the Southern California-based Renewables 100 Policy Institute saying that "It's these front-runners [like Burlington] that are showing that it's possible."

Regrettably, this good news passed without comment in the U.S. press. Unless you count a magazine called American City and County, which reported that "the city passed over the threshold into complete sustainability... with little fanfare." That's for sure. How many people read American City and County?

Going renewable is not all that easy. The AP points out that "reaching 100 percent was the result of a yearslong strategy to wean themselves from traditional sources of power in favor of renewables." Utility officials in Burlington "first began discussing becoming 100 percent renewable a decade ago." The AP quoted a power company manager saying, "The transition in thought from 2004 to 2008 was 'We want to do this' to 'This actually makes economic sense for us to do this."

Abandoning fossil fuels "makes economic sense," you say? Well, that's a perfect transition to our next story, about the amazingly-low cost of saving the planet.


Climate Good News #2: Saving the Planet Is Cheap. Really!

"For years we have been told that we cannot pursue strong economic growth and combat climate change at the same time. But what if that's a false choice?"

Those are the opening words of a video accompanying the release last month of a report called "The New Climate Economy." It was put out by a group called "The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate," which has been put together by seven countries—Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom—as an independent initiative to report to the international community.

The reason that "Jobs vs The Environment" is a false choice is spelled out in the report, but it basically boils down to this: The world is going to invest about $90 trillion (yes, 90 TRILLION) in the next 15 years on "infrastructure in the world's urban, land use and energy systems." If those investments are made in such a way that they reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they will also have what are called "co-benefits"—that is, benefits that are not the main intention, but that happen anyway—that will save so much money that the net effect is that the measures taken to address climate change will end up being, in the end, "free." That is, we'll save as much as we spend. How can that be? An example from the Report will help illustrate:

"The Commission's analysis of urban development planning shows cities that control sprawl and are built around efficient public transport systems can both stimulate economic performance (by reducing traffic congestion, making journeys shorter, and reducing fuel costs) and reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions. But they are also likely to improve air quality, reduce road accidents (a major source of death and injury, particularly in developing countries), and generate higher quality of life for residents. This, in turn, can make them more attractive to businesses and their potential employees."

Get the picture? Going green will save lots of money in health care costs, lost work time, fuel costs, etc. It's a "Spend money to save money" kind of deal. And in the process you save the planet, which is the greatest "co-benefit" of all.

Read the Report for yourself. I particularly recommend the 72-page "Synthesis Report" or, if you don't have that much time, how about the 6-page Global Action Plan?

Same Point, This Time From the IMF

Another study, this one issued by the International Monetary Fund, came out at about the same time as "The New Climate Economy", and makes basically the same point. That is, that the spending needed to address global warming would be more than offset by the money such spending would save in public health spending, land use efficiencies, fuel price stability, and so forth. The main thing the IMF talks about is "pricing" carbon dioxide emissions—that is, charging people for the carbon they use, probably via some type of carbon tax.

You'll get the picture when you read their rather cold-blooded explanation of how "carbon charges" will save money: "Most obviously, as carbon charges reduce use of coal, natural gas, and petroleum products, this reduces the amount of people killed by outdoor air pollution, currently estimated at 3.7 million a year worldwide." When you think of how much money it costs to treat someone with cancer, and multiply that by 3.7 million, the savings begin to come into focus.

The Climate Economy Report and the IMF study represent good news for the environment, but I urge people to notice the insanity of putting dollar values on human life. The entire thrust of the International Monetary Fund has to do with "costs" and "prices" and "externalities"—not surprising, since it is the International Monetary Fund, not the International Human Welfare Fund. Still, even the IMF refers to "environmental benefits" and "climate benefits," which are seen to be good things, even if it's difficult to put a price tag on them.

Read the IMF Working Paper for yourself. It's called "How Much Carbon Pricing is in Countries' Own Interests? The Critical Role of Co-Benefits," and it's available online HERE.

I highlight these two reports here because of their obvious political importance. That is, they go against the argument that we can't "afford" to take significant steps to mitigate the human contribution to global warming. An absurd argument, I know, but this is the United States, after all, and such arguments are often invoked by short-sighted capitalists to protect short-term profits. Witness this September 14th headline from the Baltimore Sun: "Maryland Clamping down on Pollution by Coal Plants; Energy Companies Warn of Potential Economic Impact." Such headlines are the norm.

The failure of the media to cover either of these reports is thus of great political importance. Energy companies have the power to generate strong opposition to any policies they want, whenever they want. Not having that kind of money, the rest of us rely on the hearts and minds of the population, and the consciousness-change that we need depends, in part, on media. That's where most people get their ideas about what's possible. And what's desirable, for that matter.

So when I say "failure" I'm referring to the fact that the New Climate Economy report was the subject of a total of two news articles in the U.S. press (plus a couple of pieces on the opinion pages). And the IMF study was completely ignored in this country, save for an excellent September 18th column in the New York Times by Paul Krugman. So, our ignorance thus protected, we will continue to argue about the choice between "jobs and the environment" despite the evidence that it is, indeed, a false choice. And the argument is kept going by a compliant media that only speaks when spoken to. And who speaks to them? Corporations.


Climate Good News #3: Ozone Healing

Just a little bit earlier than the three stories I've just mentioned—on September 10th—another environmental good news story was released to the press. Unfortunately, the press ignored it, except for the Brattleboro Reformer in Vermont. (What's up with Vermont, anyway?)

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) began their press release (Which they noted was "For use of the information media") like this:

"The Earth's protective ozone layer is well on track to recovery in the next few decades thanks to concerted international action against ozone depleting substances, according to a new assessment by 300 scientists."

Back in 1987, the WMO reports, "ozone-depleting substances contributed about 10 gigatonnes CO2-equivalent emissions per year." I didn't even know what a gigaton was: It's one billion tons. (Or "tonnes" as they say in Europe.) But a remarkable thing happened. The world got together in Montreal, Quebec and decided to do something. The result was the Montreal Protocol, the most widely-ratified treaty in United Nations history. In fact, when South Sudan ratified it in 2012, it became the first universally-ratified treaty in history. And it's been amazingly successful. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) tells us that, according to computer models, "the Protocol will have prevented 2 million cases of skin cancer annually by 2030, averted damage to human eyes and immune systems, and protected wildlife and agriculture."

Not only is this good news in and of itself—who can argue with preventing 2 million cancers?—but it also tells us something important. And that important thing is the fact that a united world really can accomplish important things. The WMO press release quoted UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, who said it plainly:

"The Montreal Protocol community, with its tangible achievements, is in a position to provide strong evidence that global cooperation and concerted action are the key ingredients to secure the protection of our global commons."

In the wake of the September 23rd international "Climate Summit" in New York, and the 400,000-strong climate march that preceded it, and in anticipation of next year's United Nations Climate Change Conference that will attempt to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate between all the nations of the world, the success of the Montreal Protocol should be shouted from the proverbial rooftops.

But, again, the daily media was asleep at the switch when this report on treaty success was released last month. If you want a little inspiration, go read the UNEP press release for yourself. The failure of the corporate media to report it severely limits the impact of this news, but that doesn't mean you can't read it. Then you can tell your friends.