Push and Pull

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Photo by Sporkist

By Enrique Lescure

Introduction

A surprising move by the French government has seen the ban of food waste in supermarkets. While this undoubtly are positive news, which are putting the focus on the practices of food management within the retail industries, there are also problematic aspects with this approach. I will take the opportunity to use this post to discuss some of the problems with punitive policies, and also to offer the contures of a more holistic approach.

moral

Moralism & Practical repercussions

The concept of morality has been an integral part of human social interactions for all of recorded history, and probably during the entire period of human sapience. Morality affects both laws, but also the institutions forming around our legal systems. It affects unwritten rules and etiquette, and provides a common cultural framework within which a culture is developing its values.

You may already have understood that there is a difference between morality and moralism as concepts. A moralist view of the world is defining the world from an antropocentric perspective in which actions generally are defined as good or evil, and where good actions should be rewarded and evil actions punished (moralists tend to weigh on punishments). Thus, the important thing is not the consequences for the greater good, but the intention of policies. For example, strict anti-drug policies may not work, but they send a signal that society does not accept “aberrant behaviour”.

Often, we imagine that moralism is the realm of political and cultural conservatives, who hold to social views where for example inner city neighbourhoods fraught with crime, poverty and violence are seen as entirely a result of bad upbringing, absent fathers and a lack of faith in scripture. I would not make any statements on where moralism is most usual, but it tends to varies between periods in time. For example, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, we have had “moral panics” regarding metal music, veganism and role-playing games (from evangelical fundamentalists), while during the first decade of the 2000’s and increasingly during the 2010’s, we’ve seen more moral panics regarding gender issues, racial issues and the issue of immigration.

When an issue has become a moralist issue, it is difficult to hold an adverse opinion on a matter, since the one opposing the “good” position is suspected of being tainted by evil.

That’s not saying that moralists cannot have good points, for in most cases, they strive towards a better society and they are putting the focus on for example social ills. But the discussion that is created around the subject tend to become increasingly shrill and symbols-focused, which reduces the ability to access the practical situation on the ground and build the foundation for an inclusionary discussion. This kind of dialogue – which really is a monologue from one party – can turn into a moral panic, especially if there is one “offending group” which is seen as representatives of evil. This can lead to a witch hunt, in which people’s personal lives and integrity are harmed. If the moral panic occurs from more than one direction, the results can be catastrophic.

However, to return to the retail policies of Valls’ cabinet, it seems to me at least as symbolic measures that are hitting on a seemingly random point in the linear resource chain. Firstly, a lot of food is thrown away or destroyed during the production phase, which is incredibly wasteful in its own right, especially as the food industry is more and more reliant on mono-cultures for every passing year. As you can see on the image below, every staple has an own linear chain like this, and at every stage, you can be sure that resources are wasted.

Food-Supply-Chain

If the French government has not anchored this new policy in the retail industry, the results will be that the retail industry maybe will buy in less food (as the best possible result), but that will affect other parts of the food production chain, and transport the waste there. Sadly, farmers are often in developed countries subsidized to discard food. The retail industry can also adapt by for example giving away excess food as aid to developing countries or to homeless people. But giving away the food as aid would probably hurt farmers in the Third World, outcompeting small family farms and inevitably replacing them with cattle ranches or mono-cultures (producing grain mostly used to feed cattle and sheep), contributing heavily to both freshwater waste, soil erosion, dependency on fertilizers and climate change.

So while this policy probably has both pragmatic and moralist foundations, it seems at the moment to be a random swing aimed at an industry which has immoral practices.

A holistic approach

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The Human Civilization can be defined both as an integrated network of eco-systems and as a super-organism. Our cities are visible as crimson and greyish spots from space, our monocultures have transformed Europe, China, North America and the Amazon Basin. To understand human activity on Earth and how profoundly it has transformed our planet, we must move away from an individualistic approach where we view the society as a fixed entity and the one with the choice how to act – the conscient agent – is always an individual.

We must understand that society is more than our consumer choices, more than our political or lifestyle choices, and even more than the culture we were born and raised in. Human civilization is – from a physical perspective – an intricate web of resource flows, and the infrastructure which both makes these flows possible and also is a result of their current. Civilization is an emergent meta-organism. Now, I am not saying that civilization is “evil”, nor that all civilizations (both real and imagined) are the same.

However, without a realization that food waste is a part of a civilization based on a destructive way of utilizing the environment, rather than an aberrant outlier in an otherwise “good” civilization, we would just continue to create new ecological crises until we’ve exhausted the ability of the planet to maintain an advanced human civilization. One central problem is of course that governments – as one of the commanding tops of what can be called the consciously organized part of Civilization – must base their existence and legitimacy around the idea that our current civilization is ultimately good and at least better than any conceivable alternatives. Cultural memes are also largely centered around reinforcement of norms and values that will support the existence of the civilization and its structures (given that, western civilization has undercurrents that allow for criticism in certain directions, this criticism can later be applied and included into the process through democratic and academic means, thus creating a greater degree of adaptability than in other cultures).

To return to the main point, policy-makers must realize that ecological issues (avoid the term environmental issues) are not just a policy area amongst others, but the base on which civilization rests. Therefore, a thorough set of ecological policies must be arranged in such a manner that they have a profound effect on all activities inside the Civilization, and with a good overview over not only resource flows, but also financial flows and population flows.

The goal of such an approach would be a long-term transition towards a sustainable circular economy which can exist within the limits of nature.

Push and pull policies

graphicdesign.stackexchange.com

graphicdesign.stackexchange.com

Governments can not alone form or lead the transition. It requires an integrated approach from political leaders, financial leaders, community leaders, civil society, non-governmental organisations, economic actors, grassroot groups and individuals and families. What governments can do is however to install the legal framework to affect behaviour amongst different segments of society.

Such frameworks can be designed  to punish bad habits or rewarding good habits. Punishing bad habits can for example be to increase taxes on fossil fuels, or on companies selling fossil fuels, or to outright ban certain practices (another example would be to reduce or take away all parking spaces in city centres). Rewards can be to install subsidies for green energy solutions, or to reward car owners for swapping into eco-friendly cars. It can also be to for example create free public transit.

Given this, we need to discuss how an effective transitional approach would work – and that is depending on two factors. Firstly, how grave is the ecological situation right now within the area you want to affect positively (I advice you to look into the article about the Three Criteria for an elaboration on information-gathering). Secondly, exactly what kind of transition do we want to foster?

The direction of for example subsidies or taxes, or more legalistic measures like outright bans would shape the outcome in some way, and the question is how large ripple effects one could get.

What is certain is that both push and pull methodologies are necessary within the framework of today’s financial system in order to make effective transformations possible. In general, bans are not advisable, especially not of processing aspects of industrial systems (of which the retail industry is an example). Rather, it would be more effective to tax unsustainable food management practices and make additional fines if the industry is not compliant.

Then it is of course a matter of how large taxes there should be. Ideally, for example the meat industry should be taxed with so high – even punitive – tax rates, that it ceases to be able to operate. That will sadly have adverse effects on everyone from butchers to Argentinian gauchos and Fast Food employees, but unemployment is ultimately an insignificant problem in comparison with the future of the Planet.

There does however also need to exist rewards, and investments into alternative ways of managing resource flows. Instead of just focusing on aspects of production, we must analyse the energy weight of entire production chains, and policies should be shaped after the realization that our civilization is an integrated physical system. Therefore, revenue taken from the processes that are damaging the planet could be invested into projects that facilitate processes that are either neutral towards or would improve the long-term well-being of the biosphere.

Ultimately

The Earth Organisation for Sustainability has come to the conclusion that to create a sustainable civilization on Earth, we need a way of managing resources that is profoundly different than today’s. We need to know how much resources we can take from the Earth, we need to arrange these resources within a circular economy, and we need to provide basic sustenance to all human beings.

But to reach that point, to go from here to there, we must employ the available tools of the current system, both to create new tools, to manage and reverse ecological decay, and to transition our socio-economic system. Only by employing a holistic approach can we reach constructive results for the future of our planet.

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Why we are failing (Proposed article)

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Okay. Here is another proposed article for the updated EOS website. It is pretty much longer, and I know the articles should be short. But I have comprimed 500 years of human history in less than five pages. It was pretty difficult I must admit.

Introduction

 

We want to apologise for the length of this article beforehand.

Energy accounting is originally a concept from the US technocratic movement of the 1930’s, which EOS has developed as a conceptual template. To understand what Energy Accounting is and why we want to carefully examine it as a potential replacement to the current monetary system, we need to understand how the current monetary system is working.

 

Firstly, what is money? Money is a medium of exchange, in order to simplify transactions between various parties. Originating in the mists of the Bronze Age, monetary economies connected regions and allowed trade to perpetuate itself.

 

Yet, we must understand that early monetary regimes were often tenuous at best, most often local and requiring the protection of patrons with access to mines – most often the dukes, kings, sultans and emperors of the various states of the medieval world.

 

This could also help to explain our points, as to why our current system is failing in regards to our collective environmental obligations as a species.

 

Early Monetary Systems

 

The first monetary systems that arose either arose spontaneously from small communities, which used either a “key good” or a form of “semi-available rarity” as currency. When the first coins were made, in Asia Minor around 2700 years ago, they were made both to stimulate and facilitate trade between villages and towns, and to strengthen the legitimacy and strength of the early state (especially as money often trickled down into market places from the payment of soldiers and other public employees).

 

The rise of money is a thoroughly complex process, but the rise of the monetarised global system is a relatively recent occurrence. For much of the ancient and medieval world, money was inherently deflationary as its value rested on the control of copper, silver and gold. Thus, the system encouraged savings and hoarding, and retarded the development towards a full-scale monetary price system. In medieval markets, every licensed merchant often had with him his own scale, to judge the value of the money in terms of its weight.

 

Even in the advanced Roman Empire, only a small fraction of the taxes were collected in the form of money! Most taxes were collected in the shape of grain, minerals and other resources.

 

Most people in the pre-industrial world were self-sustaining farmers and rural labourers, who for most of the time directly worked to feed themselves from what they could produce out of nature.

 

The rise of Banking

 

Trade could be a perilous business during the middle ages. Highwaymen, barons, wars, storms, the Black Death and other occurrences could easily separate a merchant from his gold during the many dangerous voyages through lands and seas.

 

The wealthiest and most prosperous region of Europe was northern Italy, where the cities never had vanished during the dark centuries following the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

 

During the Renaissance, cities like Venice, Genoa, Milan, Pisa and Florence sent out merchants far and wide throughout the Mediterranean world, Europe and the Middle East, often exchanging gold for valuable luxury products from the Far East.

 

To facilitate this exchange, several of the great trading families began to engage in the insurance business. Gold chests were heavy, clumsy and hard to transport, not to speak of being magnets to thieves and pirates. Families like de Medici could specialise in offering securities by depositing the gold (for a fee) to other merchants, giving them a receipt which allowed them to gather the same amount of gold in for example Alexandria, Constantinople or Kaffa.

 

These firms soon started to lend money to various cities and kingdoms for interest fees. Thus, “banking” in the conventional sense was born.  

 

The rise of Fractional Reserve Banking (FRB)

 

Given that both the depositing and the lending were made with receipts, the gold would not under normal circumstances leave the confinements of the bank vault. It would be impractical for the client to withdraw it physically, and people who deposited gold in such a bank where often years away travelling. At the same time, borrowing money became increasingly popular, especially as the European monarchies and republics of that era became increasingly dependent on hiring mercenaries to fight their many destructive wars. Banking houses were offered lucrative contracts, without having the necessary deposits to be able to lend money to the states in question.

 

We don’t know exactly when banks started to lend money without having access to the necessary balance to do so, but it stands evidently clear that the temptation and the low risks associated with the scheme would soon or later have coalesced into the practice today known as Fractional Reserve Banking.

 

Shortly speaking, Fractional Reserve Banking is a mechanism that allows banks to lend more credits than are covered by their deposits. This is possible because of multiple clients depositing their fortunes at the same time, and that it is unlikely that all these clients would remove their deposits at the same time.

 

Moreover, the clients were thereby obliged to pay back gold which had never existed in the first place, plus interest.

 

In the terms of laypersons, Fractional Reserve Banking means that you lend out money that you don’t have, while those borrowing the non-existent money are forced to pay back in the form of real money, with a little bit more.

 

Where the alchemists of the dark crypts and poisonous laboratories failed, the perfumed bankers living in the luxurious Venetian and Florentine palaces succeeded.

 

Sustained capital accumulation and western supremacy

 

Even though Northern Italy was eventually destroyed, through the violence of the mercenary armies funded by the Italian bankers, Fractional Reserve Banking is a part of the explanation why the western world from the late 15th century and onward managed to create sustained economic, technological and colonial expansion.

 

The banks of Italy, and later of the Netherlands and Britain, were funding colonial ventures, the development of new weapons and technologies, scientific breakthroughs, commercial enterprises, the booming slave trade and the establishment of the first factories.

 

The reason why is simple. With a full deposit cover, the bankers who lend money would lend out gold that actually is entrusted them by clients, and thus would be unwilling to support projects that hold high risks for failure, or which are new and untested. Thus, the employment of FRB systems can accumulate and utilise capital more aggressively than the crude agricultural economies previously were able of.

 

During the 19th century, the gradual gains of trade, colonialism, technical and scientific innovations and capital expansion culminated in a sustained industrial boom that transformed the entire civilization. The modern world was born.

 

As innovations and growth rushed, however, so did the many bankruptcies and failures. The world grew faster, and with the telegraph and railways, information spread quickly throughout the now very much smaller world. Rumours, true or false, stock rushes, companies and ventures falling apart and the increased competition for more and more scarce resources fuelled an increasing number of bank runs – events when the deposits were retrieved by the clients as a result of a loss in trust. Such events usually led to liquidation of the bank itself, and the destruction of capital – both real and imaginary. It says itself that unregulated capitalism from the 1870s and onward experienced more and more shocks following the collapse of one commercial bank after another.

 

To counter this development and to restore stability, most developed nations turned towards establishing central banks in order to guarantee the deposits of the commercial banks and their clients – if necessary by sacrificing the interests of the weakest citizens. In the USA for example, the US Congress of 1913, at the behest of the big commercial banks and the US mega-corporations, established the Federal Reserve during the first Wilson administration.

 

Usually, central banks are a pillar stone in regards to the regulation of interest. This practice is referred to as interventionist monetary policy. After the Second World War, it has usually been coordinated with interventionist financial policies, which are carried out by governments. These policies exist in order to smoothen the business cycles and prevent either overheating or sudden crashes.

 

Nowadays, the signs are everywhere that the system is crumbling. The dominant power in this system, the United States, is suffering massive de-industrialization and an enormous debt on both the federal and state level. The European economy is stagnating. China is experiencing declining growth rates and increasing environmental pollution and class conflicts.

 

The system has accumulated a mountain of debt, and we are on the verge of what can spiral out of control and become World War Three.

 

So, why are we failing?

 

The addiction to growth

 

The global monetary system is not dependent on growth because it has the wrong priorities, or because it is in the knees of multi-national corporations and consumerism. It is not dependent on growth because of “human nature” or because of greed, even if greed plays well into the mechanisms it is built on.

 

It is dependent on growth because it must grow, otherwise it will start to crumble and eventually collapse.

 

Think of it for a moment.

 

Only 10-15% of the loans of modern commercial banks have to be covered by the deposits of the customers. Thus, the banks are really lending money from the future. This means that FRB has not only realised alchemy, but also for all purpose invented time-travelling!

 

Some critics claim that FRB is a system which is creating money from thin air. That is however not entirely true. The money is created in the figurative world by the banks, but then created a second time – this time in the real world – through investments, labour and the production of goods and services. In short, the economic activities of all the corporations and individuals who have been compelled by need or by their dreams and ambitions to ever accept a loan from a bank.

 

This process allows the capital to multiply itself, and make credits accessible for the future development of the economy.

 

The hidden danger in this pyramid scheme lies in the fact that it requires permanent economic growth, or at least the belief in permanent economic growth. A growth which can turn the debts in the balance sheets into actual financial assets.

 

For this to be permeated however, it requires one thing:

 

The continued destruction of the Earth’s biosphere.

 

What really matters

 

For hundreds of millions of years, the Earth has had a complex system for the acquisition and renewal of resources. This system has been characterised by complex relationships unified within an emergent dynamic equilibrium. This system is called “the biosphere”.

 

It can more simply be referred to as Life.

 

The human civilization is ultimately resting on the fact that we are based on a planet characterised by a wide variety of ecosystems of living beings. The current way in which we are heading is the equivalent to raising a palace while removing the ground and foundation of to gather more materials. It is foolish, and not the least sustainable.

 

It stands clear to every aware individual that our civilization at the present point is on the route towards causing a new mass extinction amongst the species, bringing the entire Eocene Biosphere to an end.

 

Climate change is but the most well-known of the challenges ahead. The swift increase of the global average temperature is upsetting weather and drought patterns, affecting the natural cycles of storms, contributing to an accelerating rise of the sea levels, and affecting multiple species of animal and plant life negatively.

 

There have been several major conferences on this issue, and all of them have either produced semi-failures or complete breakdowns. While the leaders and decision makers have been aware of this issue for the better part of 20 years, they have been unable to turn the development around or even slow down the increasing usage of energy that produces CO2 emissions.

 

There are many reasons for this monumental human failure. You can blame the oil lobby, the United States, China, the consumers, the politicians, yourself or human nature in general for this failure.

 

The fact, however, is that it is extremely difficult to enact any kind of meaningful change in the energy sector as long as we have  a monetary system that automatically seeks to expand as much as possible, since a contraction will mean that it will be crushed underneath a mountain of debts piling up before it.

 

At the same time, we are silently allowing a real deficit to constantly grow, by using more resources for every year than the Earth can possibly renew. The continuation of that practice will eventually produce an ecological disaster of hitherto unseen proportions, at least for the last 65 million years.