Archive for September, 2010

Dammit, Wired, I do like you . . . but why must you guys always assume that new stuff (ok, sometimes pretty cool stuff) will fix all our problems?  There are situations where a new device or good might be important and useful . . . but to argue that a viable development path might be constructed on improving access to cheap consumer goods worldwide fails to acknowledge the reality of the world today.  Even worse, they are not the first to fall into this fallacy – see the Product (RED) trainwreck (or as I like to call it, the buy-your-way-out-of-your-guilt plan), which came at this from the side of providing aid from rich countries.

Why am I so pissy about these sorts of feel-good ideas?  Because perhaps the central challenge that faces us in addressing the intersection of development and environment is the problem that there is simply not enough stuff in the world to allow everyone to consume at the same level as Americans – not even close.  We’d need between 2 and 3 more Earths.  Or, if some Cal Santa Cruz astronomers are correct and they’ve actually found another potentially habitable planet, maybe only 1-2 more Earths.  Hey, it’s progress . . . oh wait, its 20 light years away and we have no way of getting there.  Right, 2-3 more Earths, then.

Under these circumstances, arguing for more consumption makes absolutely no sense at all – instead, it pushes us ever closer toward a zero-sum world, where the only way to improve one’s own material situation is to take away from someone else’s.  I’d argue that this describes the current situation anyway, as we here can only live at our standard because so many do not – but that is a rant for another day.

This is not to say that the global poor should stay that way.  Interestingly, Wired‘s examples of products they like are largely development interventions (irrigation, water filters, rural lighting, etc.) by a different name.  I have no objection to these interventions – they are rather small in terms of consumption footprint, but have tremendous positive effects.  However, the larger message of the piece seems to be that making cheap stuff for these markets is, in the end, good for them.  No.  This rests on the idea that the only products people want are as practical as irrigation – a very bad assumption.  Most of the folks I work with in rural Ghana would love a TV, though I can personally attest that Ghanaian television will not improve their quality of life.  Or anyone else’s for that matter.  Making cheap TVs that people can afford is not going to help us out of the global hole in which we are located – it will just take up more resources faster.

Making development interventions cheap is good.  Further, introducing them through markets, instead of through proscribed programming that is not sensitive to local context, is often good (sometimes markets fail, though).  But assuming that we can generalize from these examples to a wider statement about markets and human well-being doesn’t fly.  We’re not going to buy and sell our way to a more just, sustainable world.

Now, if someone was to get on revolutionizing the generation of electricity such that it is so cheap as to be effectively free, and we could talk about how to really revolutionize development, as this might address the resource shortage problem.  When, for example, recycling becomes super-cheap (a huge percentage of the cost is energy), and we can reuse what we already have instead of constantly digging up more, this equation might change . . .

via Climate Science Watch

“Documents obtained through freedom of information law show how Canada’s Harper government is controlling federal scientists’ ability to communicate with journalists on scientific issues. The requirement for ministerial-level pre-approval for media contacts applies broadly, not only to politically contentious issues like climate change and oil sands. “It’s Orwellian,” says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at University of Victoria, quoted in the Montreal Gazette. The public has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning. On this issue, the Ottawa Citizen suggests the Harper government is engaged in “a creeping and worrisome authoritarianism.”

Oh lord, we unmuzzle our federal scientists here in the US, and the Canadians (the Canadians!?!) go the other way.  Well, if nothing else this demonstrates that science is always political – though not always this obviously.  People forget/don’t realize that governments determine how pots of research money are to be spent, which tends to shape what research gets done.  This decision is political.  So the administration in charge of those research dollars can have a huge impact on science and knowledge . . . without resorting to such crude measures as muzzling their scientists.

I think Rick’s response is on point: this is research being paid for with taxpayer dollars – therefore the taxpayer has a right to hear what the scientists found out with those dollars, even if the government in charge thinks those findings are inconvenient politically.  Any time a government starts to muzzle science that is paid for with taxpayer dollars, the citizenry needs to push back . . .

Slate has an amazing series on economic inequality in America – The United States of Inequality.  Beyond the interesting and clear examination of economic stratification in the United States over time, the reporting has a few visuals that are absolutely stunning demonstrations of the importance of economic policy on income equality/inequality.  Some may call it social engineering or wealth redistribution.  It most certainly is the latter, and could be the former – if one assumes that poor people in fact like seeing rich people’s incomes grow faster than their own, and would not want to change that circumstance.  And please, please don’t throw trickle down arguments at me – they have been empirically refuted repeatedly since the 70s.  How long does a failed theory get in the face of empirics, anyway?

An example of what I am talking about is this graphic (found here):

I first saw a version of this in a talk by Dick Peet – though I believe he was operating with the top 1% (see below).  My household actually fits into the decile in this figure, according to how they have defined it.  We arrived relatively recently.  As happy as I am to be here, I am not sure that I need any more tax cuts.  Even with three kids, massive daycare bills, etc.  At some point, we just have to pay for stuff like roads, schools and fire departments, and giving me a tax cut is not going to really stimulate the economy – I’m going to save the money for my kid’s college funds.

This figure is stunning (found here)

The top 1% of earners in America earned roughly 8% of all income in the US around when I was born.  Today, they earn 18%.  Where, exactly, is the justification for further tax cuts for this section of the population – their share of total income grew dramatically under Clinton, which is where the tax rate will return to if the Bush cuts expire . . . so how exactly can anyone argue that a return to slightly higher taxes (still very low by historical standards) for the top 1% will hurt even the top 1%, let alone the whole economy?

Why am I writing about this on a blog about development and the environment?  One of the big indicators of development is the GINI coefficient, which measures the distribution of incomes in an economy.  We tend to worry about countries with high or rising GINI coefficients, as it suggests that economic opportunity and development are not reaching a wide portion of the population.  This is even more acute in my current job, where we are tasked with worrying about the situations of the most poor and vulnerable.  Yet here we are in the US, with a clearly rising GINI coefficient. has an interesting graphic on this:

We are headed in the wrong direction here, even as we chide countries on the same path.  Robs us of our standing to make this argument elsewhere, no?

Via Amazon:

Look at that last line: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #159,799 in Books.  Somebody bought one!  Woohoo!  Roughly 1199 to go before I break even!

Coral bleaching is back, and the New York Times has noticed.  Nice of them, given the persistence of this problem over the last few decades.  In summary, you care about this because coral is generally seen as one of the canaries in the global coal mine – they are very sensitive to changes in the temperature of the oceans in which they live, and when they get too warm (often only a few degrees above normal temperatures) they lose their color as they go into survival mode – hence the term “bleaching”.  Many bleached corals die, and when they do the very rich biodiversity they support dies with them or disperses.  Yep, coral bleaching is bad.

That said, Justin Gillis and the people he interviewed for this story are perhaps pushing the coral bleaching = global warming thing in the wrong way.  Basically, the argument in the article is that climate change (warming) has pushed average sea temperatures up, and so when we get a warm year, it doesn’t take long for the already warm seas to get too warm for coral:

“It is a lot easier for oceans to heat up above the corals’ thresholds for bleaching when climate change is warming the baseline temperatures,” said C. Mark Eakin, who runs a program called Coral Reef Watch for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “If you get an event like El Niño or you just get a hot summer, it’s going to be on top of the warmest temperatures we’ve ever seen.”

Well, yes . . . but you don’t have to have evidence of a warming trend in the seas to get this outcome.  Instead, all you need is greater climate variability where there are several years with hot enough temperatures to push things over the edge, even if average temperatures have not really risen all that much.  Climate variability is an outcome of climate change – so you can still make the bleaching-to-climate change connection – but you don’t have to assert permanently warmer seas when the evidence for this is pretty uneven globally.  This, of course, is not surprising – the distribution of atmospheric warming is pretty uneven globally, thanks to the circulation of the winds and oceans, and differences in the vegetation that cover the land in different parts of the world.

So, to summarize – yes, coral bleaching is a good preliminary indicator of the impacts of ongoing climate change . . . but it does not necessarily mean that we have an established warming trend as much as evidence of disruptions in the normal variability of air and water temperatures created by the redistribution of excess heat energy in our atmosphere.  Overselling the warming trend (which is there – see here at Climate Charts and Graphs, but not in a manner that can be downscaled to reliable causality for coral bleaching) doesn’t do us any favors as we try to influence policy on climate change, and how to address it.

The BBC reports on the relocation of the Roque Santeiro market from the waterfront of Luanda (Angola) to a site 12 miles outside the city.  Interesting here is the government’s use of the standard script for the bulldozing of the informal market:

“The authorities say the market had to be closed down because it was cramped and unhygienic, a den of organised crime and prostitution.”

I say standard script because it is employed so often to justify otherwise problematic government actions – for example, Mugabe used more or less this same script to justify bulldozing Harare shantytowns full of people who voted against him in 2005:

“Zimbabwe says the policy – known as Operation Murambatsvina [Drive Out Rubbish] – is intended to crack down on black-market trading and other criminal activity in the slum areas.” (via BBC)

The informal economy is a tremendously important source of income and resources for those living in the developing world.  However, the script is also technically true – most of this economy functions outside of formal taxation, regulation, etc., and is therefore criminal.  This makes life pretty precarious for those living in the informal economy – most of the time they are allowed to operate as they wish, but when it is politically or economically expedient, they are relabeled criminals and can lose everything.  This is not to say that there are no criminals, prostitutes or other problematic people/activities to be found in the informal economy – indeed, a former student of mine, Denise Dunovant, found that much of Accra’s street vending appears to be loosely organized by organized crime networks that decide who can sell what and where.  But that is not the point – everyone knows this sort of thing is going on all the time.  So, whenever you hear a government refer to the informal economy as “organized crime” or otherwise criminal, ask yourself why they are finally choosing to enforce the law at that moment, in that place.  In the case of the Roque Santiero Market, the BBC is right – the real estate was just too valuable to leave alone any longer.

The BBC has a remarkably feel-good story about Angola’s newly-refurbished Luanda-Malange train route.  While I love positive stories about Africa in any media – if for no other reason than to offset the over-reporting on conflict and poverty – this story completely  misses the important point here.  This line was refurbished through Chinese financing . . . despite the fact Angola cannot really pay the bill.  The story intimates that China was somehow surprised or dismayed at the non-payment, and held up the opening of the line until they were paid.  Really?  Anyone who has been paying attention to the growing Chinese presence in sub-Saharan Africa will find this storyline borderline hilarious.  The Chinese simply don’t care all that much about getting paid now.  Their interest is in the rich agricultural areas around Malange, and securing reliable transportation routes in and out to enable the movement of agricultural goods from this area to future Chinese markets.  In other words, they will get theirs later – this is an investment, not a repayable loan.  The new scramble for Africa has been on for nearly a decade, but nobody seems to be paying attention except the rank-and-file Africans, who grow more leery of this sort of thing all the time.  At what point will the US or another power step in to try to counterbalance the massive growth of Chinese influence in Africa?

I took the photo in 2006 – it is the road through Dominase and Ponkrum, where I work in Ghana, looking to the south toward Ponkrum.  What do you think?

Sorry for the lack of posts, folks. I’m in orientation for the new position, which just swallows whole days – useful, but a bit exhausting.

So, a quick post following up on my previous comments about food prices. The Guardian has a good piece on this issue at

This piece is much better than reporting from US sources, but it does have a significant flaw driven by the political goal of the author – highlighting the failures of economic/development policy and practice, and how this led to our current situation. While I agree that these are major issues, I am concerned with the way the author downplays the fact that there has been simmering discontent with the government in Mozambique for some time. The riots are locally-specific: tied to food markets, development policy and other geopolitical processes, but crystallized into action through a local lens. This is why we have riots in some places, but not others. It’s just too hard to generalize . . . and we don’t learn much when we do, I fear.

I’ve gotten a bit of attention for this blog by commenting on my frustrations with the IPCC’s relationship to the media.  Andy Revkin has a great post on his Dot Earth blog at the New York Times on the latest iteration of this issue.  Revkin argues:

“Here’s the vital step: The panel would do well to cultivate, rather than restrict, contact between its authors and reporters in poor countries. There is a glaring need for the panel and related institutions — the United Nations Environment Program and World Meteorological Organization — to facilitate informed media coverage of climate risks, both natural and human-driven, in poor places. This is nowhere more pressing than in sub-Saharan Africa, where exposure to climate-driven hazards, particularly drought, is acute even now, let alone with whatever shifts may come through the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (And keep in mind that populations in the region are projected to double by 2050, greatly increasing exposure to climate-related hazards.)”

I couldn’t agree more.  What spurred this commentary from Revkin was a request for help from a Nigerian journalist, who wanted to contact African scientists on the IPCC but couldn’t.  Revkin circulated this call to a number of people, including me – so I was fortunate to be included on the group emails that he includes in his post.  I offered a number of comments, but one seems pertinent to the issue of media relations.  While several people on the email immediately moved to get this information to the journalist, the new media officer for the IPCC, Isabel Garcia-Gill, seemed to be slowing down this process.  When Nick Nuttall, the senior press officer for the United Nations Environment Program, asked if she could provide an updated register of national expert climate scientists from across the key and relevant disciplines for the media, Garcia-Gill responded:

“So far we are going to keep that list at the Secretariat so that all requests come through the media and communications team. We cannot yet post it on the internet, not before the authors are media trained. But of course, you will be informed.”

I responded to this comment in an email to Revkin:

“I was a little bothered by Isabel’s response to Nick – basically, she reaffirmed her and her organization’s right to gatekeep “their” experts.  This does not build our credibility or our legitimacy.  I am not at all convinced by claims that the authors need to be media trained – they just need to make it clear they speak for themselves, and not the larger processes to which they belong.  We need to hear the different voices in this process, and the different foci they might bring to these assessments – otherwise, we run the risk of the problem I mentioned earlier – we get African voices parroting the same lines as those of us from advanced economies, which does nothing to move us forward on issues of adaptation and mitigation.”

Thanks to Revkin for working this concern into his post, near the end.  We’re getting better, but institutional cultures seem hard to overcome . . .