Sunday, January 11, 2015

Is Sustainable Development an Oxymoron?

We love Eleanor Roosevelt. And Eleanor Roosevelt loved the United Nations. While it does not necessarily follow that we too love the United Nations, we have always felt that the central idea of a United Nations was a good one, in fact it is really the only one that has any chance at all of ending war, colonialism, slave trade, arms trade, nuclear power and weapons, and destruction of the Earth's natural patrimony, be it oceans, atmosphere, biodiversity, sacred sites or indigenous wisdom.

Like it or don't, these days if you want to resolve conflict, either between groups humans or with the natural world, at the global scale, it is the only game in town.

"OK, everybody was aware of the horrors that nationalism had wrought in the immediate aftermath of World War II. So, instead of—one impulse was to create something called the United Nations. And then, the unfortunate side impulse was: Let’s not give it any power; that’s too dangerous."
— Art Spiegelman, Democracy Now, January 8, 2014

In his 2015 Forecast for the USA,  James Howard Kunstler emotes an R.Crumb-style, dystopian vision of modernity:

The pervasive racketeering that poisons American life from the money-in-politics farce, to the shameless, chiseling medical-pharma cabal, to the SNAP-card and disability rights empire of grift, to the college loan swindle, to the disgusting security state apparatus, to the corporate tyranny of local life and economies, to the delusional techno-narcissism of the media, to the despotic and puerile gender preoccupations of academia — all of it adds up to a society that cares as little for the present as it does for the future. And that’s aside from the pathetic digital device addiction of the generation coming up, and the sheer sordid behavior of the tattooed, drug-saturated, pornified masses of adults now forever foreclosed from a purposeful existence or a decent standard of living.

Even physically America is a sorry-ass spectacle: between our decrepitating cities, abandoned Main Streets, gruesome strip-mall highways, repellent and monotonous suburbs, dreary industrial ruins, profaned countryside, and desecrated coastline, there is little left to actually love about This land is Your Land. We’ve made so many collective bad choices about how we live that one can’t help feeling we are simply a wicked people who deserve to be punished.


Obama and his party can be faulted for fostering the myth that every young person needs a college degree — leading a whole generation into debt penury for no good purpose, while depriving society of a long list of vocational roles and livelihoods based on providing genuine service or value. We will be a nation of unemployed gender studies graduates instead of plumbers, electricians, organic farmers, arborists, carpenters, machinists, nurses and paramedics, small business owners, et cetera.

This enormous bundle of myths and misplaced expectations for yesterday’s tomorrow prevents the collective national imagination from summoning a revised American Dream based on repairing the massive destruction of recent decades.
Kunstler's phrase, "yesterday's tomorrow," aptly sums up much of what one feels at UN events. The themes Eleanor Roosevelt set in motion with her famous speeches on the future of the United Nations are still alive, but bear about as much resemblance to the state of the world in 2015 as rocket shoes, robo-maids or Disney Mars.

In ginning up support for nations to join the UN, Roosevelt said in Paris in 1948

Concern for the preservation and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms stands at the heart of the United Nations. Its Charter is distinguished by its preoccupation with the rights and welfare of individual men and women. The United Nations has made it clear that it intends to uphold human rights and to protect the dignity of the human personality. In the preamble to the Charter the keynote is set when it declares: "We the people of the United Nations determined...   to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and... to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom." This reflects the basic premise of the Charter that the peace and security of mankind are dependent on mutual respect for the rights and freedoms of all.

One of the purposes of the United Nations is declared in article 1 to be: "to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

This thought is repeated at several points and notably in articles 55 and 56 the Members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the United Nations for the promotion of "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."

We will leave aside the obvious disparity today between Obaman diplomatic positions and that of the UN charter, as evidenced by the recent Senate findings on torture, the on-going rendition and drone assassination program being run from some deep bunker in the White House, the banal daily torture programs at Gitmo, Bagram and other black sites, the malign neglect — by unilateral Security Council veto — for the human rights of Palestinians, the creation of a security state in the home city of the UN that resembles Germany c. 1933-1945, tracing its Machtergreifung (seizure of power) to the Diebold/Scalia fiasco of 2000.

Our focus instead is on the UN's increasingly out-of-touch agenda for "sustainable development" by mid-century. Because of the glacial pace of finding consensus among 180+ nations, very little gets done, and then only very slowly. Most nations change UN delegates every year or two and send newbies who are completely unacquainted with the names of the janitors, and sometimes outright opposed to the UN as an entity (UN Ambassador John Bolton in 2005, one of the authors of Cheney's Niger-Uranium-Italian-Memo). 
Sometimes they are there for the travel junkets and baby blue paraphernalia. Parking tickets owed New York City by Egypt: $1.9 million. More often, they are there as a return for some kind of political favor. Henry Kissinger was impressed with Shirley Temple Black at a cocktail party in 1967.

And yet, the UN gets handed every thankless task on the planet, man-made and otherwise. It sets up temporary refugee camps that end up growing like cancers for half a century, as in the case of the Palestinian diaspora camps. It loses hundreds of skilled paramedics to Ebola. It watches real peacemaking heroes like Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the third High Commissioner for Human Rights, get blown to bits. But it keeps slogging on, underfunded, unappreciated, and often reviled.

The Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want, set a mandate to establish an Open Working Group (OWG) to incorporate the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs) into a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) for action by the General Assembly at its 68th session (UNGA68, Sep-Oct 2013). UNGA68 commanded that the SDGs should be the roadmap for the world's development agenda beyond 2015.

In its simplest form, the SDGs are reduced to 17 agenda items:

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture
Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all
Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts *
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
Each of these goals is dissected by committees, further articulated by civil partners, subjected to annual conferences and negotiations, and assigned a timetable. There are SDG policies on finance, technology, trade, capacity building and systemic issues. There are multistakeholder partnerships, data collection, monitoring and forums on accountability.

So, for instance, it is a target under Goal 16 that by 2030 there shall be legal identity for all, which means everyone should have a right to birth registration, whether they are born in a welfare hospital on Roosevelt Island, the Lindo Wing of the Imperial College, or under an acacia bush in the Subsahel.

Or, under Goal 14, by 2020, all international law shall prohibit certain forms of subsidies that contribute to fleet overcapacity, seine netting and overfishing the oceans. Or, under Goal 1, by 2030 no-one on the planet has to live on less than $1.25 per day and by then we shall have reduced at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty. Poverty still has to be defined, and there are committees working on that, but $1.25 per day is a good start.

These are worthy goals. While no one imagines that ending poverty in all its forms everywhere is even remotely possible (What about poverty of culture? Poverty of imagination? Poverty of spirit?), it seems entirely feasible that wealth could be distributed enough to assure none has to live below a standard of $1.25 per day, right?

Well, there are a few hitches in the UN process.

As discussed often on this site, the world's economic Ponzi hoax based on fractional reserve everything teters, as we read this, on the brink of collapse. Historically, whenever private debt (households plus businesses, not sovereigns) to GDP ratios run 1.5:1 or higher, and are enlarging debt annually at greater than 20% (doubling it every 3 to 4 years), according to macroeconomist Steve Keen, a crash quickly ensues. Today, nearly every country exceeds the first of those two conditions and all the major economies exceed the second. Per incuriam, financial collapse will arrive shortly. Wall Street prophets predict we'll see some real fireworks by the third or fourth quarter of 2015.
How do crashing economies respond to poverty? They make it worse. Same for the other 16 goals.

Classical economics conveniently overlooks the net energy equation, also known as EROIE, or energy return on invested energy. Economists like Paul Krugman or the Chicago school assume that energy goes on the supply side of the supply/demand balance. Any time there is a shortage of supply, demand will rise, drive up price, and more supplies will follow. One might only look at the current oil glut and the fracking boom and say "case in point." One would be sadly deluded.

As Lisa Zyga writes:

In neoclassical growth models, there are two main contributing factors to economic growth: labor and capital. However, these models are far from perfect, accounting for less than half of actual economic growth. The rest of the growth is accounted for by the Solow residual, which is thought to be attributed to the difficult-to-quantify factor of "technological progress."...

In a new study published in the New Journal of Physics, Professor Reiner Kümmel at the University of Würzburg and Dr. Dietmar Lindenberger at the University of Cologne argue that the missing ingredient represented by the Solow residual consists primarily of energy. They show that, for thermodynamic reasons, energy should be taken into account as a third production factor, on an equal footing with the traditional factors capital and labor....
Right now we are surfing a frothing energy wave. U.S. crude oil production over the last three years rose roughly 1 million b/d each year.  Analyst Tom Whipple says "That is by far the fastest rate of increase, as well as the largest absolute increase, in US crude oil production history. It might also be the largest three-year oil production increase in world oil production history." Shale oil was the reason — highest from the Eagle Ford in Texas, North Dakota’s Bakken, and five big formations in the Permian basin. But was it new gushers or cheap credit driving the boom?

Oil patch expert Arthur Berman said recently:

Continental Resources is the biggest player in the Bakken. Their free cash flow—cash from operating activities minus capital expenditures—was -$1.1 billion in the third- quarter of 2014. That means that they spent more than $1 billion more than they made. Their debt was 120% of equity. That means that if they sold everything they own, they couldn’t pay off all their debt. That was at $93 oil prices.

Despite amazing technological breakthroughs, or perhaps because of them, the cost of drilling and completing fracked wells is very high. That drives up oil company debt. Shale debt doubled over the last four years. Shell and other majors pulled out, citing vastly smaller returns than estimated.

NASA: fugitive methane emissions from wells and pipelines
Just imagine how low those returns could go if frackers were required to arrest fugitive methane emissions that give gas drilling a larger greenhouse gas footprint than coal. The invisible, odorless plume from just the New Mexico play has now grown to the size of Delaware and is monitored by NASA satellites. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, 9 percent of US emissions, enough to provide power to every household in Delaware — and Maryland and Virginia too.

The shale oil boom may plateau in the 2016-2017 time frame, then decline rapidly. The bust could even come in 2015 if a black swan event like dropping the Iranian nuclear sanctions plummets the Brent crude fix to $20/b.

Berman reminds us that Saudi Arabia met with Russia before the November OPEC meeting and proposed that if Russia — now swimming in new proven reserves — cut production, Saudi Arabia would also cut and get Kuwait and the Emirates to cut with it. According to Berman, "Russia said, 'No,' so Saudi Arabia said, 'Fine, maybe you will change your mind in six months.'"

Then a funny thing happened. Russia was slammed with a bunch of EU sanctions over its so-called "invasion" of Crimea (that was actually a naked grab by NATO for Ukraine and a popular vote by Crimeans to get the heck out of the way of whatever might be coming). Eastern Ukraine was pounded into rubble, a Dutch airliner shot down, a lot of bad stuff happened. Refugees fled into Russia. The ruble crashed. Now suddenly Russian LNG is selling for a fraction of its worth, at least the part that is not siphoned off by NATO/Ukraine on its way to Europe. Lo and behold, Russia now has a strong incentive to cut production. Who would have thought?

The fracking boom has never amounted to much more than smoke and mirrors, or as Kunstler said,

Despite the triumphal agitprop of the past few years, peak oil is for real. It just manifests more strangely than most people thought, namely, the simpleminded idea that it would only show up as ever-rising prices. No, I made point in The Long Emergency (2005) — and other commentators did too [Greer in The Long Descent, ourselves in the Post-Petroleum Guide – ed.] — that peak oil would manifest as volatility. And so since the actual moment of peak conventional crude around 2005, we’ve seen pretty wild oscillations in the price of oil. This is due to the harsh reality that the price people and enterprises can afford to pay for increasingly harder-to-get oil is less than the price that makes it possible to get it. This sets up a yo-yo-ing instability in economic performance that exacerbates even normal wave patterns in the business cycle (which are, in turn, aggravated by banks and governments’ interventions such as ZIRP to suppress those cycles). Below $70-a-barrel the producers go broke; above $70-a-barrel the customers go broke. So the price wobbles up and down as financial Ponzis like shale oil are introduced onto the scene in the hope that debt finagling and mineral rights leasing scams can substitute for physics and geological reality. One trouble with this is that each violent oscillation generates more economic and financial destruction. Activities like motoring, aviation, manufacturing, and retail are badly affected and the entire financial system is made more fragile by worsening increments. Most importantly, the cost structure of the oil industry itself gets battered to a degree that fewer companies can survive to produce the remaining oil.
Without economic propulsion from that magic elixir, the planet's 500-million-year savings account of fossil energy, how do we suppose any of those 17 SDG targets are going to be met? And if we are on the backside of the curve now, since 2005, that means we are also descending Maslow's pyramid of needs and wants. Our aspirations move from higher goals, such as reducing inequality within and among countries or promoting life-long learning opportunities, to goals like finding food, water and shelter for the three or more billion people fleeing rising coastlines and other climate chaos by mid-century.

Of course, there is also the issue of human population. The UN has recognized the importance of this, establishing the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. That conference received considerable media attention due to disputes regarding the assertion of reproductive rights. The Holy See and the Islamic bloc were staunch critics. Bill Clinton was chastised by evangelical conservatives for sending Al Gore, an evangelical, to represent the US.

Twenty years later, the population issue remains deadlocked at the UN, much like the climate issue. It is understandable. In the case of climate, to disengage from soiling our nest would mean having to abandon capitalism and that whole profit thing. That will always be a non-starter, despite all the evidence it is driving us towards near-term human extinction.

For us to reduce population would mean bucking the fecundity strategy that our species evolved even before it had a frontal cortex. Sex just feels good. It's in our lizard brain. You gonna stop that? Maybe with the Koran or the Bible? Seriously? How is that working out with drugs and alcohol? Sugar craving? Homosexuality? Pork?

The UN says:

Sustainable Development Goals are accompanied by targets and will be further elaborated through indicators focused on measurable outcomes. They are action oriented, global in nature and universally applicable. They take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respect national policies and priorities. They build on the foundation laid by the MDGs [Millennial Development Goals], seek to complete the unfinished business of the MDGs, and respond to new challenges. These goals constitute an integrated, indivisible set of global priorities for sustainable development. Targets are defined as aspirational global targets, with each government setting its own national targets guided by the global level of ambition but taking into account national circumstances. The goals and targets integrate economic, social and environmental aspects and recognize their interlinkages in achieving sustainable development in all its dimensions.
Sustainable development is unsustainable, if it means sustaining a system of piling up material wealth, ruthless exploitation of finite resources, extracted at great social and environmental cost, not recycling or distributing back but instead rewarding the acquisitive, and building high-embodied-energy monuments called cities, which reduce people to living on paychecks, drawing dwindling resources from the distant periphery towards the empirical center, and then multiplying that whole enterprise by some doubling function based upon the survival rate of sperm in the ampulla.

As Manab Chakraborty said, "Development is expanding to satisfy unlimited wants. Sustainability is happiness within limited means." Infinite material development is incompatible with sustainability.

Sustainable development is sustainable if what is developed is not more, but better: better quality of life, better food from better soils, better climate, better and abundant water, better diversity of fellow lifeforms, and so forth. This better is the enemy of more. The way to sustainability, which is illusory at best, as a species, is through systemic degrowth, not reflexive growth.

In 2006, when we proposed "the Great Change," as the best way to describe the next few decades, as opposed to "the Great Turning," "the Long Descent," or "the Long Emergency," we were trying to be optimistic. It may be foolish, but that is our bent. The Great Change is about a slow-building but then sudden shift, less having to do with physical constraints and ways of coping, as about changing our minds after grasping something we had long overlooked.

Our global outlook will change, suddenly and collectively. We will all, suddenly, understand the story differently than our parents and grandparents did. Many of us may not live to see that happen, but we might. What that moment implies is not some supernatural singularity issuing in an Age of Aquarius (can I hear a Hosanna?), but a serious reckoning of what we still have within our power. Hopefully it will be accompanied with the knowledge of what must be done to heal a broken ecological balance and save ourselves. Dispensing that information is the function of this website. This is the hope that drives it.

What we can work towards is, as Kunstler said, "the collective national imagination … summoning a revised American Dream [and its global counterpart] based on repairing the massive destruction." That is what we call The Great Change.

When the UN was resurrected from the rubble of total, genocidal war punctuated by a small foretaste of nuclear holocaust, the idea was that men should live by rules. Rules should be serious, reality based, and legally enforced.

When the moment of recognition comes that many old, fossilized rules from the Age of Empires serve us poorly and much of what the UN has been grinding through for 68 years is the only serious game in town, we can take those 17 goals and turn them into rules. Break the rules, pay the consequences. Abide within the rules, and life can be very, very good.

1 comment:

Danny C said...

To answer, or attempt to do so, sustainable development is an oxymoron, if it is devised to continue in the profit/get credit/to purchase it meme. More than anything, The Great Change has clearly elucidated that to make any meaningful advance towards the good of all flies in the face of true capitalism which can be defined as profit in an ever descending order.
"When the moment of recognition comes that many old, fossilized rules from the Age of Empires serve us poorly and much of what the UN has been grinding through for 68 years is the only serious game in town"..... I'm taking this out of context because it strikes me as a last homage to that empire that,maybe,even the UN has been an attempt to protect developement...with a capital $.




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