October 25 2016 Sustainability talk

I am Greg Gerritt coordinator of the Environment Council of Rhode Island’s Compost Initiative.  I am going to give you something a bit different today.  While I am an experienced home composter, getting my start  cleaning sheep barns in rural Maine 35 years ago for a cut of the manure, I am not the person to explain all of the nuance of compost chemistry, hot composting, anaerobic digestion, vermiculture, using compost to create hot water, or any of the other variations and permutations in compost.

Most of what ECRI’s Compost Initiative does these days is put on the annual RI Compost Conference and Trade Show, the next one will be March 9 at RIC, happy to talk to you today about participating, so I do try to be aware of what is going on in RI so I can find good speakers and exhibiters.  ECRI has a lobbying arm, so in the early years of the Compost Initiative  I took a role in getting new compost legislation and regulations put into place so that the industry could gain a foothold and grow in Rhode island.

Compost is incredibly important to the future prosperity of our communities.  As the climate changes, California runs out of water,  and the economy slows, Rhode Island is going to need to grow an ever greater percentage of the food consumed here.  5, 10, 20 times what we grow now.  And the only way to make this happen is to capture every compostable and get it composted and back onto the soil.  Compost is also part of what we need to do to reduce our carbon footprint to zero as methane generated in landfills from food scrap is a major greenhouse gas contributor.

So far the only new medium to large scale compost business success I know of in Rhode island since we started the annual compost conferences is the Compost Plant which hauls compostables from many large institutions and food businesses.  I saw them picking up at the hospital in my neighborhood this weekend. At the community scale the last few years we have seen a major increase in home composting, many new community garden compost programs, the development of a Vermiculture cooperative, a compost tea operation, and a few microbusinesses/cooperatives.

Many of you are experts on some part of this equation, compost, solar energy, digesters, and are looking for business opportunities.  I am a green activist who has been part of sustainability efforts for more than 35 years. So I am going to talk about what I understand sustainability is. Maybe this will help us put a little more context around our discussions at this conference and beyond.
Most of the definitions of sustainability refer to the triple bottom line, community, business, and environment.  Nice idea, but I have yet to see anything coming out of that intersection that meets my criteria for sustainable.    My criteria is that if something is to be sustainable, it must heal the fabric of the ecosystem and the community.  It is not enough to merely slow down the rate of destruction, the destruction must be reversed.  The reason I say that is because the ecosystems of our planet are already so severely damaged that only by reversing the damage, by healing the systems, can we reach a place were we are finding the resources we need to thrive without doing more harm.

I do not know how many of you know about Overshoot day.  The idea of Overshoot day is that at some point during the year people have exploited and appropriated all of the biologically renewable production of the planet for the whole year.  This is just what people use, it does not even take into account all of the resources needed to feed the wild animals.  This year it was earlier than ever, August 8.  Last year it was August 13.  That means that every tree cut after August 8 this year, every bit of soil washed to the river and to the sea, every fish in the ocean captured was depleting the capital of the Earth.  Which means for 4 months each year, for 1/3 of all the biological resources taken by people this year, we are diminishing the biological richness of planet Earth.  The result.  The global forest shrinks each year, more species go extinct, more rural people experience hunger, and there are fewer fish in the sea and animals in the forest.  If there is less each and every year, how can we call that sustainable?  Within a couple of years we shall need two planets just to supply us with the resources we use each year. And what about the wild?  50% of the wild animals on earth have disappeared in the last 50 years, and the pace is picking up. Unless Overshoot day is December 31 each year we are in for tough sledding.

Do not get me wrong. I care how many green features or alternative energy systems go into the buildings, I put solar panels on my house in 1985, we need them desperately. But if we are doing them in the context of the continued destruction of planetary ecosystems, then we are pissing into the wind.
This same principle applies to all the discussion of how much more efficient we are, and how that is sustainable.  The simple reality is that all of the efficiencies we have garnered have still not actually reduced consumption in any meaningful way. If it is cheap and efficient many more people join the market and the overall effect is still faster depletion, more pollution and a faster increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.    So while you save money and energy, more CO2 ends up in the atmosphere.  And it seems to work like this for almost everything.,  Show me examples of when we became more efficient the overall use of a substance on planet earth went down.  Iron?  Steel?  Wood?  Concrete? Plastic? Rare earths? We just keep using more and that is not sustainable on planet Earth.
A key factor to think about when pondering a sustainable economy is that infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet. I have never heard any mainstream discussion of sustainability without the terms sustainable growth being used.  There is no sustainable growth on a finite planet.   According to more and more experts, the economic growth rates seen routinely between 1948 and 1973 were likely the highest growth rates that will ever be seen for a generational period on a global basis. Right now the global GDP growth rate is about 3% and no one is predicting it will go up any time soon.  Or ever.   If places like China are growing 6% a year, and India and Indonesia are growing at 5%, then places like the USA and Europe are going to be filled with many many pockets of growth in the 1 – 2% range like Rhode Island usually has. Simple math.

The important factoid is that Rhode Island does not have the conditions for rapid GDP growth. The two main factors for rapid growth are a population experiencing rapid growth through immigration by displaced rural populations becoming the first generation city dwellers, or a natural resource boom.  There are a few cities in the USA that do meet that criteria, often the latter part, but a few places are still seeing immigration of first generation urban dwellers. Rhode Island sees only a trickle.  Nor do we have an abundance of previously untapped natural resources, with the exception of wind and sun and food scrap.  No one is going to reopen the coal mine in Garden City, bog iron is not worth mining these days, we do not have the forests to burn to smelt it, and we do not have any shale formations with gas to frack.  If you look at the USA, (or for that matter any country on planet Earth) nearly every state with high growth rates is having some kind of fossil fuel (coal or fracking) or mineral boom,   In Rhode Island we shall get an economic wind power boost, and we need more agriculture, but no matter what we will be a low growth rate state, with what little growth we get siphoned off by the 1% if we continue on our current trajectories.  So how do we create prosperity in a zero or very low growth environment?  That is a question our politicians are not asking, and I think that an alternative economic strategy built around community sustainability might be much better for the 99% than the current real estate investment driven economic development strategy that only benefits those who already own property and a thin slice of highly educated folks, while driving everyone else out of their homes with gentrification and making their skills obsolete. How do we create prosperity in the nearly jobless future?

Another factor to include in your thinking about the future of the economy is the state of the global forest.  It is interesting that at about the same time we have destroyed half the global forest half of the global population has become urbanized.  But we are unlikely to be able to build a true Earthcity simply because we shall run out of forests first.  It is virtually impossible to build cities without cutting down a huge swath of forest.  And as the forests disappear the ones we cut to build cities are in ever more remote places, and ever more important to keep standing as a bulwark against runaway climate change.

I spent a number of years working to save Maine’s forests from clearcutting. Eventually it was documented that wood was being cut 20% faster than it was growing each year. In the counties in the heart of the industrial woods it was being cut 3 to 4 times faster than it was growing. This at a time when the entire industry, from woods to mills, was already shedding jobs. We pointed out that current cutting practices were going to end very soon and that the loss of forest would bring many headaches to Northern and Western Maine. We lost that campaign, but within 5 years the cutting practices had changed and the amount of wood being cut was reduced to less than was growing each year. Unfortunately the jobs never came back.
Recently more and more economists are looking at the role of debt in our society and realizing that debt is being used to move wealth from the community to the 1%.  The problem with this is that just like cutting more wood than grows each year, siphoning off money to the 1% grinds economies to a halt and everyone, or nearly everyone, ends up owing more to the banks than they can reasonably pay back in a low growth economy. Creditors take the house, the farm, the whatever.  Eventually many societies in the past had to do one of two things to escape the debt trap. Either declare jubilee and wipe out debts to the banks, or undergo revolution and kill the landlords.  Only very occasionally have societies opted for more democracy and banned debt peonage and restricted what the banksters could do in order to allow the people to escape crushing debts.  Austerity is not sustainable.
The larger lesson is that using debt to fuel an economy guarantees that the basic goal will be enriching the very richest instead of creating a general prosperity,  and it will do horrible things to the planet and our communities.  Including this year threatening democracy itself.      Clearly Wall St came out ahead even when they crashed the economy in 2008 simply because they could buy Congress and threatened them with no consulting gigs after an electoral loss if they did not buy into the idea that the only way to save the economy was by giving the banks money instead of bailing out the debtors.  A strategy that gave us the slowest and weakest recovery in history.
Hold that thought.

Now lets go back to Overshoot day.  In order to pay the debts that have compound interest attached to them, people have to wrench more and more from the planet each year just to stay even.  This always reminds me of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland running faster and faster just to stay in place.  Hence we get crazy schemes like trying to build a fracked gas power plant in Burrillville that is guaranteed to prevent us from reducing fossil fuel emissions in RI for as long as the plant remains functional.   And forces us to pay for it even after we close it down as too polluting. The banksters must be paid even when everyone loses money.    Clearly the path is takes us over the cliff.
Right now in Providence some of the downtown landlords are scheming to move the poor out of the center of the city so their real estate, which is highly subsidized by the other taxpayers in the city, will be even more valuable.  This catering to the high end attracts other high end folks, setting off the gentrification of further neighborhoods in the city without ever replacing the housing no longer available to lower income families.  The price of housing goes ever higher until the only way to put a roof over your family’s head is on an interest only liars loan with the prayer that real estate values will skyrocket, making it even harder for people to find shelter they can afford but allowing you to sell at a profit. The direct result of current economic development strategies is that In Providence every available street corner with traffic has someone standing there asking for money.

Here is a sidebar

How many of you know what the correlation between a good business climate ranking and a state’s economic growth rate is? The answer is that there is no correlation. Rhode Island is the poster child, horrible business climate index rankings. But where do we rank in per capita income and growth rates? Right in the middle. In other words business climate rankings are a political tool designed to tilt the economy towards the already wealthy. And guess what? When you change the rules so that the wealthiest are accommodated it slows your development. Piketty demonstrated that a few years ago and it has not been refuted.

Back to the people asking for money at the corner.

Beyond the social and economic disruption of a population living on the edge, the strategy of moving the poor out of the center of the city is actually guaranteed to fail.    Ever since the beginning of cities 9000 years ago cities have been a magnet for the displaced.    Depending upon how they have been displaced people head for cities, or the artificial cities called refugee camps.  Taking in displaced rural dwellers is actually the only way city populations grew until the invention of modern sewers because of epidemics and very high childhood death rates from diarrhea.

The displacement and subsequent urbanization of the rural poor, and gentrification and displacement in the cities, is accompanied by an increase in the amount of fossil fuels burned, a condition exacerbated by growing inequality in which upgrades in efficiency are not available to the poor in rental or shanty housing.    That raises sea level by expanding the size of the ocean as it heats up and the melting of glaciers and ice-sheets such as Greenland and the West Antarctic. Every time you hear a new prediction it says the seas will rise faster than the last estimate.  So the strategy of economic development by creating downtown enclaves for the wealthy is exactly the opposite of sustainable as it drives more poor folks to the center of the city and drowns the filled in marshes of downtown even faster.
One can not address community sustainability in a coastal city without considering climate change.  If we do not get our carbon footprint down to zero in the next 10 years, (if we have not already passed some tipping points) we are going to see floods, droughts, storms, heat waves,  that will rock us, and the inexorable rise in sea level will eventually flood the city.  If the sea level comes up 10 feet in the next 100 years, totally possible if we do not shut the fossil fuel industries down completely very soon, what is it going to take too protect the coastal cities of the world? I think we are going to have to  begin a serious retreat from the coast, with the goal of moving every person and building to where they are at least 15 feet above sea level.  Rebuild the marshes and the coastal forests. Remove the walls and help beaches and marshes get reestablished.  Walls will just make the problems worse.  Step back a few hundred feet.

It is not sustainable to stay on the coast.  It is not sustainable to keep expecting the economy to grow when the resource base is collapsing.and the forests are disappearing and the 1% is stealing everything they can. Those of you at conferences like this need to get serious about the task at hand, get serious about how deep the damage is and what needs to be done to repair both the fabric of the planet and the fabric of our communities.  How much democracy it is going to take to do this, how much undoing of rule by the rich?    I do not know.  But I do know that without more justice, more economic equality, less wealth in the hands of the landlords and banksters,  our communities will continue to be crushed and ground up and they shall neither be sustainable nor prosperous.  If you want sustainable communities, they will be created around repairing ecosystems, growing food, clean energy, and more democracy.

Communities must/will always have the right to say no to industries that are incompatible with decent community life if they are to be sustainable. In fact that is rapidly becoming the most useful indicator of democracy on planet Earth. Where the people can not say no to powerful interests to protect their community from harm, there is no democracy.

We must close the war machine and stop building new and better ways to kill.  The war machine is exactly the opposite of sustainable. I think of it as digging a big hole and throwing all your money in it, and it gets worse if you actually use the stuff you build.  It is a huge parasite on the taxpayers, and leaves devastation in its wake.  It breaks countries, it does not repair them. And creating enemies makes us less secure, not safer.   Or is the war machine sustainable because we keep finding new enemies to kill for the simple crime of wanting the US to stay out of their country and leave them alone?  The problem with trying to keep the empire going is it bankrupts us and then bankrupts us again paying for the health care of all the people broken by the wars.  As Country Joe said, plenty of money to be made supplying the army with the tools of the trade. We now have a 50 year legacy of destroying villages to save them, which is such incredible double speak that the country that came up with that saying should have to permanently give up war and spend its money cleaning up the fossil fuel mess that provides the context for so many wars.

Sustainability at its core has to be just.  Slavery and empires are not sustainable.  Growing inequality and rising poverty are not sustainable.  The destruction of the global forest, the displacing of the rural poor and the indigenous is not sustainable.  Building new fossil fuel facilities is not sustainable.  At its core a sustainable economy is one in which there is a commitment to enough for everyone,.  We have enough food on earth, it is just too many are too poor to buy it and they no longer have land to grow it.

We could power all of humanity without fossil fuels.  We may move around a bit less, may need to grow food locally in much larger quantities, but we shall still eat well, and maybe better than the overprocessed foods we now are offered by the Monsanto’s of the world that put farmers out of business and drives them off the land by creating monopolies for the frankenfoods that are often the only foods sold in low income neighborhoods.

A song writer once noted that the darkest hour is just before the dawn.  We are still in the tunnel going off the edge ecologically, economically, culturally.  The rich steal more every day and rig the system further. Climate change is hurtling at us like a hungry bear.  The war machine and the empire seem to find new places to kill people every day.  But the resistance is growing.  We are stopping power plants and pipelines that should not be built,  Black Lives Matter, The Native People of North America have united to stop pipelines.  When clowns like the former mayor of Providence decide to move the poor out of downtown so they can make more money, they get laughed at, there are new community gardens every year, the residents of the Amazon are standing up to Dams and big money interests trying to steal the forest.  And people like you are working on alternatives to polluting and climate destroying technologies.  The resistance is not yet winning, but it must if we are to have healthy communities.

You can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you can not end poverty without healing ecosystems.  As you undo the harm of specific technologies remember the injustice and the poverty that our communities live with, and know that if what you do does not directly impact issues of justice and equality, it is not sustainable no matter what the talking heads tell you.