How to Have It All, to Both Prosper and Conserve
|February 1, 2014||Posted by Staff under Editorials, Good Press|
This 2014 excerpt of Dollars & Sense magazine, the January/February issue, is from an article by Polly Cleveland of Columbia University.
Scandinavian nations already come much closer than the United States to providing a healthy, sustainable lifestyle, with far lower per capita natural resource consumption.
We already have — or can easily develop — the necessary technology.
An Iowa State University study compared the Midwestern standard alternation of corn and soy, with a corn-soy-oat cycle and a corn-soy-oat-alfalfa cycle with livestock. Without lowering profits, the longer cycles increased yields while dramatically reducing the need for fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. However, the experimental strategies did require more labor.
In Ohio, corn and soy farmer David Brandt, instead of plowing, plants with a seed drill. He keeps down weeds with a diverse mixture of cover crops, which he then mows to mulch the soil for the winter. The approach takes more labor, especially intelligent supervision, as it requires Brandt to carefully monitor conditions on every part of his fields. His fields, however, yield harvests as good as or better than conventional fields, require far less fertilizer and herbicide, absorb rain better, resist droughts, and—best of all—build up carbon-rich humus.
What about farms in impoverished developing countries? Farms in densely-populated Bangladesh produced three times as much per acre as farms in the United States! In general, small farms produce more per acre than large farms, even though they usually occupy inferior land. According to a new UN report, small peasant farmers could easily feed the entire populations of developing countries with existing labor-intensive, environmentally friendly agricultural technologies — were it not for corruption, extreme inequality, and misguided attempts to impose inappropriate “modern” crops and techniques.
From country to city … Some of the richest parts of New York, like my Upper West Side neighborhood, rise to densities of over 200,000 people per square mile, with a mixture of high-rises and five-story, three-to-ten-unit townhouses. (I can zip, through a hole in the ground, the two miles to work, walk four blocks to concerts or shopping, and step into Central Park next door — who needs a car!) Yes, members of the One Percent like high density!
A study in Atlanta found that average households in multifamily units used only 60% as much energy as in single family detached houses. Average residents of New York City produce less than a third as much greenhouse gases as average Americans. And while New York apartments seem cramped by United States standards, a 500 square foot New York one-bedroom would seem palatial to a Japanese family! (How do the Japanese manage? Simple. Every morning they roll up their futons and stuff them in a closet!)
Successful innovators are disappearing, due both to growing patent monopolization and the unavailability of finance. Back in the days of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and in fact until Congress repealed restrictions on interstate banking in 1994, small businesses could rely on small banks. Bank officers served the community (at least the white community), making loans based on personal histories and an intimate knowledge of the local economy. No more. Today’s giant banks lend — if they lend at all — according to formulas dictated by headquarters, formulas that do not favor a Turkish immigrant with a new recipe for yogurt, let alone Madge’s storefront bakery. Retail banking jobs have become mindless paper-pushing.
We already have the technology to produce and live and work in ways that vastly reduce stress on natural resources. The obstacles are political.
Ed. Notes: The author extols jobs (not that she or any economist would ever have to do any of them), not leisure. It seems that as long as people have jobs (and the bosses that come with them), then life need not have meaning. Which is such a common point of view that the political obstacles should be overcomeable.
Or, perhaps humanity will wake up to their need for meaning and joy and leisure and replace the demand for jobs with a demand for justice. Since the whole point of economies is to do more with less, it’s true that the technology for this version of a better world is already here, too. Likewise, the obstacle is purely political.
Part of the political solution is for society to recover the socially-generated value of land, resources, and ecosystem services. One way for society to do that is to have its government tax the annual rental value of locations. That can be achieved by shifting the property tax off buildings, onto parcels. In the US, it’s a policy already in place in some Pennsylvania towns, since Pennsylvania’s constitution, unlike those of other states, allows cities great leeway in tax policy. Two political websites in Pennsylvania frequently blog in favor of the Land Value Tax: one is Keystone Politics, the other is Next City, which just had another article in favor. Check it out to understand the policy side of sustainable economics better.