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A Life on Our Planet – A Tentative Step Toward Mainstream Steady Statesmanship

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 24/10/2020 - 1:22am in

By James MacGregor Palmer

Sir David Attenborough is nothing short of a national treasure in the UK. The 93-year-old nature broadcaster’s lyrical but soft-spoken narration is instantly recognizable, providing the backdrop for many Britons’ most vivid on-screen encounters with the natural world.

Attenborough’s career has spanned well over half a century, bringing the world’s wildlife to our screens. While initially his focus was merely on bringing viewers a taste of the planet’s brilliant biodiversity, over the years a new concern has emerged: Biodiversity is shrinking. And Attenborough feels an obligation to use his platform to do something about it.

That’s why, even at his advanced age, he’s joined Instagram, hoping to influence a younger generation that will bear the majority of the burden of the climate crisis. It’s also why, though tentatively and incrementally, he has begun to point the finger of blame at something so deeply embedded in our hegemonic psyche that it has seemed for so long beyond criticism—capitalism. In doing so, he is (perhaps unwittingly) becoming a great asset to those of us who believe in steady-state economics.

Globe (a life on our planet)

From outer space it’s crystal clear that we live on a planet of a finite capacity. (Image: CC0, Credit: PIRO4D)

Attenborough’s latest film, A Life on Our Planet, is his “witness statement.” It documents the loss of biodiversity that has occurred during his lifetime. Biodiversity is a term that has somewhat shifted off the mainstream media’s radar in recent years; yet here it is brought front and center. But throughout, there is a consistent theme that this loss is not merely caused by human carelessness but by a systemic need for ever more consumption. This need must be overturned if we are to stand any chance against the climate crisis.

The Importance of Visual Metaphors and Frames

Some of Attenborough’s key points can be viewed as a coherent and digestible argument for steady-state economics. They also highlight the idea that the message lands better when it is presented as part of a broader philosophical worldview, rather than as a set of cold, hard economic principles.

First, Attenborough sketches out a rather vivid picture of monitoring the 1968 Apollo mission, the first time humanity had seen our planet from the outside:

I remember very well that first shot. You saw a blue marble, a blue sphere in the blackness and you realised that that was the earth, and in that one shot there was the whole of humanity with nothing else except the person that was in the spacecraft taking that picture.  And that completely changed the mindset of the population, the human population of the world. Our home was not limitless. There was an edge to our existence. It was a rediscovery of a fundamental truth. We are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world about us. This truth defined the life we led in our prehistory—the time before farming and civilization.

This is a powerful visual metaphor. While we walk on this planet, it is easy to become lost in its vastness, to fall into the trap of believing on a subconscious level (though on a rational level we know this to be untrue) that it is infinite. Once we view our planet from another angle, one from outside its atmosphere, it is easier for us to grasp its finitude. Widespread realization of this “fundamental truth,” as Attenborough calls it, is vital if steady-state ideas are to be accepted by the general public. Reducing steady-state economics to the fundamental truth at its core—the reality that Earth is finite and should be treated as such—could be a key element of simplifying the message. When we acknowledge this truth, and that, as Attenborough states, “anything we can’t do forever is, by definition, unsustainable,” it becomes a case of simple logic that endless economic growth is incompatible with the limits of our planet.

The power of the visual image of a finite Earth is not the only frame that A Life on Our Planet lends for potential application to steady-state economics. Another is in the following:

We had broken loose. We were apart from the rest of life on Earth. Living a different kind of life. Our predators had been eliminated. Most of our diseases were under control. We had worked out how to produce food to order. There was nothing left to restrict us. Nothing to stop us. Unless we stopped ourselves. We would keep consuming the earth until we had used it up.

Forest

The natural world is the greatest visual and experiential asset to the communication of steady-state ideas. (Image: CC0, KANENORI)

The idea here is that humans have become separate to the rest of life on Earth, subduing it and refusing to be confined by it, changing the environment instead of ourselves (an idea Attenborough first posited way back in his 1979 documentary Life on Earth). This is another mode of thinking that, if we were able to successfully challenge, would make steady-state economics far more palatable to the general public. When we view ourselves as separate from the living world we inhabit, it is easier for us to see it as there for our consumption rather than our cooperation. While many accept the fact that current hegemony encourages us to think in individualistic terms, few extend that premise beyond other people to other forms of life. Hegemonic individualism and consumerism encourage us not only to see other people as merely assets to be exploited but also to apply the same logic to the natural world. We continue to exploit all the assets available to us until there are none left. Steady-state economics is a direct challenge to this logically flawed position, but in order to become widely accepted as a legitimately workable economic theory, we must first challenge the underlying ideology that predisposes many to subconscious opposition of degrowth ideas.

A Step Forward

The natural world is the greatest visual and experiential asset to the communication of steady-state ideas. While anthropogenic climate change is now broadly acknowledged as a “root cause” of our current environmental crisis, the challenge for us is to illustrate the “deeper root”: endless economic growth. We all see the loss of biodiversity around us and we all lament it. We lap up nature documentaries because we have an innate sense of awe for the natural world. If we can bring into plain view the link between the loss of the natural world and the idea that growth is always good, we may stand some chance of winning people over.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough: Serious about protecting the planet and on the cusp of steady statesmanship. (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Credit: Mikedixson)

A Life on Our Planet takes a big step in making that connection. Yes, it may be tentative. And yes, Attenborough is careful to avoid any explicit reference to economics, but what the film does do is advocate a fundamental shift in human thinking. That has to be the first step toward general acceptance of the steady state economy.

In fact, Attenborough went further into detail on a BBC podcast following the release of the film, stating his belief that “we must curb excess capitalism” in order to combat the climate crisis. A national figure talking about capitalism as the “deeper root” of the climate crisis on a state broadcaster no less. This is big stuff.

Now, as journalist George Monbiot pointed out on Twitter the following day, Attenborough still felt the need to qualify “capitalism” with “excess,” pointing the finger at the adjective and not the noun. But Monbiot himself has written about the incompatibility of perpetual growth with continued human life on Earth on multiple occasions over the last two years in the prominent British newspaper The Guardian. We are beginning to see mainstream voices questioning the moral and theoretical underpinning of the hegemonic ideology that compels us toward perpetually increasing consumption, and that is a crucial first step toward overthrowing that ideology.

Returning to Our Roots

Steady statesmanship is not just an economic principle, it is a counter-hegemonic ideology. We are fundamentally opposed to the neoliberal capitalist worldview, which makes the task of communicating our ideas immeasurably harder. But the lesson from A Life on Our Planet is that we can use universal visual and experiential metaphors to our advantage. We all experience and love the natural world. We all get some sense of existential awe when we realize the enormity yet finitude of the planet we live on. The task for those of us who believe in change is to convince others that the world’s dominant economic model is responsible for the rapid erosion of our relationship with the natural world around us. In the words of Sir David Attenborough:

“When you think about it, we are completing a journey. Ten thousand years ago, as hunter-gatherers, we lived a sustainable life because that was the only option. All these years later, it’s once again the only option. We need to rediscover how to be sustainable, to move from being apart from nature to becoming a part of nature once again.”

James MacGregor Palmer graduated from Newcastle University with a BA in Music with Politics in 2019 and is pursuing a master’s degree in International Journalism at the University of Stirling.

The post A Life on Our Planet – A Tentative Step Toward Mainstream Steady Statesmanship appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Wildlife on the Way Out While the World Wildlife Fund Lays a Policy Egg

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 6:22am in

By Brian Czech

It’s been awhile since wildlife—not just a species here or there but wildlife at large—has been front and center in the news. Usually the biggest environmental news pertains to climate change at the global level, or local pollution problems such as lead in the water pipes. “Biodiversity” gained traction as an issue in the 1990s, but seems to have slipped off the public’s radar. (When’s the last time you saw it in a prominent newspaper headline?)

WWF

Rubber pandas and social science at the WWF? Another Living Planet Report leaves us without a clear message on economic growth. (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit: DocChewbacca)

“Wildlife,” on the other hand, seems always to be waiting in the political wings. It has plenty of constituents, as evidenced by the millions of members of wildlife organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and Defenders of Wildlife. Constituents range from the “hook and bullet” crowd of hunters and fishermen to organizations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which fights for the humane treatment of wildlife such as harp seals, elephants, and wolves. Wildlifers come from both sides of the political aisle and from all over the ethical map.

So, every once in awhile wildlife comes out of the wings and onto center stage, as it briefly did this week with the release of the 2020 Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund. The report spawned headlines such as “Wildlife in Catastrophic Decline,” “World Wildlife Plummets,” and “Humans Wiping Out Wildlife.” The report itself used phrases such as “freefall,” “wrecking our world,” and “desperate SOS.”

Unlike most of the headlines, the report does use the phrase “biodiversity,” which the WWF finds has declined 68%—just since 1970! What is their measure of biodiversity? Populations of wildlife. While biodiversity runs along a spectrum from DNA to biomes, trusty wildlife species and populations are still the key indicator of health on our “Living Planet.”

biodiversity graph

Biodiversity is the variety of life and runs from the molecular level to the landscape level. For the Living Planet Report, the World Wildlife Fund focuses on populations of species. (Figure Credits: CASSE.)

Competing Headlines

Obviously the WWF is trying their best to get media coverage with the use of such dramatic language. They’ve succeeded in a number of key outlets including BBC, NBC, CNN, PBS, and Aljazeera.

But what about Fox News? Wouldn’t the right wing of our polity be interested in wildlife? Certainly the hook and bullet crowd has a lot of skin in the game.

Using Google and the same wildlife search terms, but limited to Fox News outlets, we instead find headlines such as “Starlings captured on film fighting in mid-air,” “Tiger on the loose near Knoxville,” and—wait, what?—something about “…more imperiled species being saved.” The latter was from an article by Rob Wallace, an assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior. Wallace made the ridiculous claim, “No administration in history has recovered more imperiled species in their first term than the Trump administration.”

I spent 18 years at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters. I was hired as the first “conservation biologist” in the National Wildlife Refuge System. That was after my Ph.D. research, which was a policy analysis of the Endangered Species Act. I’ve got three things to say about Wallace’s article:

First, no one administration “recovers” imperiled species. By the time a species is listed as threatened or endangered pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, decades of conservation effort (regulation, habitat provision, law enforcement and more) are required to prevent the species from going to the ultimate graveyard of extinction. Real recovery takes science, conservation proficiency, plenty of luck, and decades of time.

Second, once the Fish and Wildlife Service determines that a species has recovered—meaning the population and habitat goals of its recovery plan have been met—delisting or downlisting (from endangered to threatened) is a contentious, laborious, bureaucratic process that itself can take years. Wallace’s article gives credit to Trump for species recovered “since 2017.” What rubbish. Every one of these species would have clawed their way back in the decades preceding Trump, with Trump reaping the benefits of efforts under Obama, Bush, Clinton, and probably Bush the Elder as well.

Third, knowing what we do about Trump’s tampering with the regulatory process, does anyone trust a delisting process under his watch? Right now, for example, most FWS employees aren’t even reporting to the office. They’re teleworking, and that means there are no in-person meetings, no conversations in the halls, no reinforcement of cultural integrity. Who’s minding the store?

It’s not hard to envision a sequence similar or identical to the following:

  • Trump tells cabinet members, including the Secretary of the Interior, to do all they can to reduce the regulatory burden on economic activities (to stimulate GDP growth and to appease corporate donors).
  • Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, the former oil lobbyist, knows exactly what Trump means, and (among other things) tells FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith, the former Monsanto executive, to delist some species. Rob Wallace, the former energy lobbyist and a bureaucratic layer of fat in the chain of command, may or may not have any significant role in the process.
  • Skipwith meets with the smallest possible number of bureaucrats in the Ecological Services Program necessary to initiate or speed up the process of delisting species. She inquires, cajoles, and insists, and then prohibits the bureaucrats from talking about the conversation with anyone else.

If you think that last step sounds a bit like conspiracy theory, think again. I know all about gag orders in FWS. Then there was the warning from Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity, “Aurelia Skipwith has been working in the Trump administration all along to end protections for billions of migratory birds, gut endangered species safeguards and eviscerate national monuments. [She] will always put the interests of her old boss Monsanto and other polluters ahead of America’s wildlife and help the most anti-environmental administration in history do even more damage.”

I’m not denying that a few species are being delisted or downlisted (with hundreds of other species more imperiled by the day). But I am nominating Wallace’s propaganda—“No administration in history has recovered more imperiled species…”—for slippery shibboleth of the year!

Meanwhile, Back at the World Wildlife Fund

The World Wildlife Fund does the world a service by publishing the Living Planet Report. It’s an ambitious effort that provides an easily understood metric, the Living Planet Index. This index is a big-picture metric that should be monitored along with the Genuine Progress Indicator, Human Development Index, Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, and Gross National Happiness. We should be looking to these metrics rather than blindly following GDP as the measure of welfare.

Judy Woodruff

Judy Woodruff and PBS producers are hamstrung by muddled messaging
from the environmental NGOs. (Image: CC BY 2.0, Credit: PBS NewsHour)

We do need to measure GDP, just like an obese patient needs to monitor the scale. The other measures, though—including the Living Planet Index—are akin to the blood pressure cuff and the stethoscope, providing key measures of holistic, societal health. They deteriorate as the “patient” (our body economic) gets obese.

It’s a shame, though, that the WWF interprets the Living Planet Index with such mixed messaging. It leaves people like Judy Woodruff on the PBS Newshour blaming the plight of wildlife on “human population and resource consumption” (September 10, 2020). What’s wrong with that, you ask? Isn’t it true?

Yes, but where’s the policy hook? If WWF wants to put a dent in the plight of wildlife and biodiversity, broadcast journalists like Woodruff need to be talking about “economic growth.” Then, suddenly, we hit the mother load of policy implications, starting with overhauling the antiquated Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978, and changing the entire dialog on the economy, GDP, and growth.

You might then ask, “But wouldn’t Woodruff and the producers figure that out for themselves, that human population goes hand-in-hand with GDP growth, and requires more resource consumption? Wouldn’t they talk about economic growth themselves then?” Nope. Otherwise they would have by now! These broadcasters won’t be uttering the phrase “economic growth,” at least not in response to the Living Planet Report, unless the WWF highlights the point for them and makes the messaging clear and easy to adopt. Meanwhile it’s down to “human population and resource consumption,” and good luck taking that to the policy arena.

WWF Has Huge Potential

Judy Woodruff, along with Lester Holt, Norah O’Donnell, and David Muir (and of course their counterparts around the world) could easily be saying, “The Living Planet Report shows how wildlife is being decimated around the planet by economic growth. As GDP goes up, wildlife populations decline and species are driven toward extinction.” They could easily be saying that if only the Living Planet Report said it that clearly.

Imagine how instantly that would impact the tone of everything from the rest of the show (stock markets, GDP figures, etc.) to the presidential campaigns. For example, Trump’s presidential calling card—GDP growth—would suddenly come into question. Rather than vying with Trump for who can grow GDP faster, other candidates (Democratic or Republican) would be empowered to counter, “Are we sure that’s a good thing?” Serious, high-level, American political dialog about limits to growth would commence at that instant.

Imagine the upside for WWF, too. They could become the standard bearer for 21st century conservation affairs. They would set themselves apart from virtually all other big environmental NGOs, at least in North America (where only Greenpeace and IFAW have said a peep about GDP growth). And, they could drive home the point every two years with their Living Planet Report.

This would probably entail some heartburn for WWF, which has a messy history of dealing with economic growth. When CASSE led the way in getting The Wildlife Society, the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics, and the American Society of Mammalogists (all scientific, professional societies) in adopting a unified position on economic growth, key opportunities were narrowly missed in the American Fisheries Society (AFS), Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), and Ecological Society of America. In the SCB case, one of the biggest detractors was a social scientist, from WWF!

For at least two decades now, well-intended social scientists have made things difficult for the biologists and ecologists who get it about limits to growth. With their knowledge of concepts such as carrying capacity, niche breadth, and competitive exclusion, ecologists are the “economists of nature.” Unfortunately the social scientists without such background aren’t always interested in the hard science of limits to growth. They tend to be more concerned with social psychology and the “human dimensions” of conservation, and consistently “overthink it” on the topic of economic growth.

Instead of helping to figure out the best ways to communicate the fundamental conflict between growth and conservation, social scientists try to figure out the best ways to avoid even using the phrase “economic growth” because they know that (currently) economic growth is politically entrenched. They’re dialog takers, not dialog makers. Then, they persuade the biologists, ecologists, and leaders of environmental NGOs that they have a better way to go about the social business of conservation. This makes them natural allies with the pro-growth neoclassical economists, who further muddy the waters (such as in the AFS), and they all feed right into the perpetual growth machinery of Wall Street and the Dark Money think tanks.

At CASSE we have challenged the environmental organizations to overcome this history and this culture, and join us in telling the truth—in the clearest of terms—about the fundamental conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation. WWF may be on the right track. In the “At a Glance” summary of the report is this tidbit: “Global economic growth since WWII has driven exponential human improvements, yet this has come at a huge cost to the stability of Earth’s operating systems that sustain us.” So, at least they are using the phrase “economic growth,” and noting that it can be problematic for wildlife. The phrase is used six other times in the report, but unfortunately without a single clear statement about the fundamental conflict between it and wildlife conservation.

Marco Lambertini, Director General of WWF International, introduces the report thusly: “It’s time for the world to agree [to] a New Deal for Nature and People, committing to stop and reverse the loss of nature by the end of this decade and build a carbon-neutral and nature-positive economy and society” (page 5). On page 99, WWF urges us to develop a “new grammar” of economics, which will then have “profound implications for what we mean by sustainable economic growth, helping to steer our leaders towards making better decisions that deliver us, and future generations, the healthier, greener, happier lives that more and more of us say we want.” Is that clear as mud yet? Imagine the howls on Madison Avenue.

WWF also repeats the tired theme that “the loss of nature is a material risk for economic development” (page 102). The fact that economic growth is what inevitably causes the loss of nature is completely lost upon the likes of ABC, BBC, and CBS. Again, they could probably figure it out if they dug into the details, but even if they wanted to, their producers don’t have time to read between the lines, and they’re not trained for this topic to begin with. They’re going to take directly from what’s in the report, and we can’t blame them.

So BBC, for example, takes a figure from WWF to inform readers that one of the biggest problems of biodiversity decline is “a huge loss to the economy.” What’s the response to that supposed to be? With the pro-growth mindset we have in the USA, the most likely response is, “Hey, we better reverse as many regulations as we can to compensate for that huge loss to the economy.”

With all due respect, Mr. Lambertini and WWF, reversing “the loss of nature by the end of this decade” is utter nonsense when we have almost all the nations of the world pursuing the goal of GDP growth. That said, at least you have upped the bar a bit with explicit references to the economy and especially “economic growth.” We eagerly await the next big step: a Living Planet Report coming clean on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation.

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

The post Wildlife on the Way Out While the World Wildlife Fund Lays a Policy Egg appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Protecting Insect Habitats Is Saving Multitudes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 13/06/2020 - 7:18am in

Over the past couple of months, construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline has faced two legal challenges. One is from a Native American tribe concerned that pipeline workers might spread the coronavirus to their communities. The other is driven, in part, by an inch-long beetle. A colorful scavenger of grasslands and forest understories, the American burying beetle is an endangered species, and on April 15, a federal judge in Montana ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers, in its haste to build the pipeline, had violated the insect’s protected status.

When we think of conservation, we typically think of vertebrates: pandas, tigers, bald eagles. But a growing number of conservationists are turning their attention to protecting insects, as well. A recent study that evaluated data going as far back as the early 1900s found that 31 percent of surveyed insect species may be threatened with extinction. The global review of thousands of species, encompassing ten major insect groups, is just one of many suggesting a potential large-scale decline of insects, prompting conservationists to act.

insect conservationA scientist surveys for insects in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington State. Credit: Candace Fallon / Xerces Society

While the barbecuing public may see insects mainly as nuisances to the potato salad, these tiny multitudes play a critical role in maintaining sustainable ecosystems. When insects eat plants and are, in turn, consumed by birds or mammals, they broadcast the energy from those plants up to the highest reaches of the food chain. Moreover, without the help of pollinators, 80 percent of flowering plants wouldn’t be able to reproduce. Closing the circle, insect scavengers return nutrients to the soil, where they’re taken up by plants. 

Insects are such key players in this cycle that scientists are focusing on measures to ensure their survival, such as habitat restoration, protective policies and conservation strategies. Butterfly conservationist Dr. Cheryl Schultz has seen how these actions can bring insects back from the brink, like Oregon’s Fender’s blue butterfly, which numbered fewer than 1,500 in the 1990s. “Now, the numbers are fluctuating as high as 25,000 to 30,000 across their ranges,” says Schultz. “We’ve done that for Fender’s blue through a combination of focused science and people working together to use that science.”

The race to save a beetle

Under the light of a spring moon, a black-and-orange beetle dashes through the tall, gold-tinted grasses of the Nebraska prairie and comes across a towering quail corpse. He climbs the body and distributes chemical pheromones in hopes of attracting a partner. Soon one arrives, and the pair plow through the soft soil, remove the bird’s feathers and drag it into the ground. 

american burying beetleThe American burying beetle. Credit: Mark Dumont / Flickr

The couple mates and the female lays eggs in a small chamber above the carcass. Later, the parents regurgitate parts of this carcass into the mouths of their offspring, co-parenting the little ones — a rare dynamic among non-colonial insects — as they transform from pupa into adult beetles, free to fly around the nighttime prairie. 

One night in June, 10 to 20 other couples stumbled upon something different — a dead rat in plastic bucket, placed there by a team of conservationists from Ohio. “Once we collect the beetles, we drive 16 hours straight from Nebraska to Ohio so we know they won’t overheat,” says one of the conservationists, Stephen Spear, Ph.D. “And then we start breeding them.” 

Spear is the director of wildlife ecology at The Wilds, a nature reserve in Muskingum County, Ohio, a state where the American burying beetle was last seen in 1974. The beetle used to be abundant across 35 states and three Canadian provinces, but it is now at risk of extinction, with only three stable populations across four states. Its decline can be attributed to habitat destruction, competition from mammalian scavengers and perhaps the extinction of suitable carrion like the passenger pigeon, which was ideally sized for the beetle’s reproduction. 

the wildsIn Ohio, the 10,000 acre preserve The Wilds is reintroducing the American burying beetle. Credit: Zane Roskopf / Flickr

After capturing the beetles from Nebraska, Spear and his team place them in a bucket of soil, complete with a buried rat carcass. Two weeks after the couple settles, the staff checks to ensure that they’ve produced larvae, excavating the top of the soil and covering it with a black cloth, which allows them to observe the beetle’s mesmerizing lifecycle. 

“It’s really fascinating to watch because the adults are constantly moving and tending to the larva,” Spear says. “It’s not something you think about insects, that they would have that kind of dedicated parental care.”

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When these larvae emerge, the team at The Wilds cares for them throughout the winter. Come breeding season in the spring, they introduce each beetle to a mate at another breeding facility to increase genetic diversity. Next summer, the grandchildren of the initial couples from the prairie will be transported to The Wilds’s forest habitat. Using a putting green hole maker, the staff, along with summer campers and volunteers, create a small pit, lower a dead rat inside and cover a beetle couple inside the home. 

This end goal of this meticulous process is a self-sustaining population of American burying beetles within the 10,000 acre reserve. It is but one small effort of many to save a threatened insect, up to and including using one of the most powerful conservation laws the U.S. has.

Six legs, one law

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been a conservation triumph. Since its implementation in 1973, 99 percent of the wildlife under its protection have avoided extinction. From gray wolves to bald eagles to crocodiles, dramatic recoveries of majestic megafauna have made the ESA the most recognized conservation law in America.

But the ESA has also been used to protect smaller creatures, like insects. The American burying beetle was designated an endangered species in 1989, a status that Spear says has been integral to securing funding and research for breeding and reintroduction programs. “I think we’re pretty confident that without it being listed, we certainly wouldn’t be doing this project here,” he says. 

monarchA monarch butterfly drinking nectar from a wild bergamot on a newly created prairie in Minnesota. Credit: Sarah Foltz Jordan / Xerces Society

Similarly, Dr. Schultz believes that the ESA has been key to the Fender’s blue butterfly’s survival, and would like to see more species listed, specifically the monarch butterfly. “There are many things that can and will happen once a species becomes formally protected,” says Schultz, “especially in terms of how federal agencies need to manage habitat on public land.” 

Designating a species as endangered or threatened requires data, however. That’s where the Xerces Society, an insect conservation group, comes in. When the organization finds data showing a possible extinction risk to an insect, it shares it with federal authorities via an ESA protection petition, says Executive Director Scott Black. 

scott blackXerces Society Executive Director Scott Black conducting an insect field survey near Mill Creek, Oregon. Credit: Candace Fallon / Xerces Society

But for all its efforts to protect insects, the Xerces Society’s ultimate goal is to keep them off the endangered species list in the first place. In 2002, the organization petitioned to list the mardon skipper butterfly as endangered. Rather than waiting for the species to become listed, Xerces began working immediately to study the butterfly’s lifecycle. This gave them the information they needed to collaborate with local forestry services to protect the species. Ten years later, the butterfly’s application for ESA protection was rejected — it had already started to recover.

Hope through habitat conservation

“The good news is that pollinators respond very well to conservation,” says Black. “Even if you put habitat in small places and protect it from toxins, you can increase the diversity of the pollinators around you.” 

Black grew up catching fireflies by night and collecting butterflies by day in the meadow near his childhood home in Nebraska. When he returned years later, he noticed something had changed. “Instead of seeing hundreds of monarchs as I did in my youth, I would see dozens,” he recalls. “And around street lights where I used to catch big beetles when I was kid in the middle of summer, you didn’t see nearly as many anymore.” 

xercesXerces Society scientist Candace Fallon conducting a field survey on Marys Peak, Oregon. Credit: Lara Drizd / USFWS Pacific Region

In 2004, Black started talking to scientists about his observations. Two years later, insect declines became an unexpected media sensation, thanks to the beloved honeybee. In fall of 2006, beekeepers across America reported an epidemic of large-scale honeybee colony die-offs. The news struck a chord, because the bee’s industrious honey-making habits were so familiar to the public. 

The USDA was alarmed enough to launch a large-scale investigation into the causes and identified multiple culprits, including the parasitic varroa mite, bee viruses and insecticide exposure. The destruction of wildflower habitats was seen as a common link exacerbating all of these threats. According to a Colorado State University study, poor nutrition is a significant factor in colony collapse, damaging bees’ immune systems and reducing their likelihood of surviving to adulthood. This poor nutrition, the study suggests, stems from habitat loss. Bees get their nourishment from nectar, and in many places, the plants that provide this nectar have been developed over.

beeA Western bumble bee alights on goldenrod in its natural habitat on Mt. Hood, Oregon. Credit: Rich Hatfield / Xerces Society

The Xerces Society has been at the forefront of the movement to protect these nectar-rich areas, working with organizations across the country to restore more than 2.5 million acres of habitat for both rare and common insects. This includes working alongside farmers to help pollinators find a balanced meal — even though many farms contain crops containing pollen and nectar, they are often all the same type of crop, giving the insects only one food source. Just like humans, pollinators that only consume one type of nectar will lack key nutrients, so the Xerces Society has helped farmers establish areas full of diverse, native plants.

A successful example of this can be found on Harris Family Farm, a large almond farm in California’s Central Valley, where over six miles of native shrubs have been planted along the perimeter. Projects like these benefit farmers by attracting domestic and wild pollinators that help their crops reproduce, as well as attracting predatory wasps that devour crop pests.

Even major food conglomerates recognize that insects are key to their products’ success. General Mills has partnered with the Xerces Society to encourage farmers who grow oats and other crops to build similar habitats. “Pollinator loss is an issue that really resonates with food companies and farmers,” says Black. “So one of our biggest partners is General Mills, which is implementing really large-scale habitat restoration to make their supply chain better for pollinators.”

harrisA nectar-rich hedgerow planted beside almond orchards at Harris Family Farm in California. Credit: Cameron Newell / Xerces Society

Black says the Xerces Society has reached out to 120,000 farmers and land managers to educate them on how to better protect the pollinators they rely on. In June of 2017, the organization created the first non-governmental certificate for growers who have shown a dedication to pollinator conservation, called Bee Better Certified.

Signs of progress

In May and June of last year, five American burying beetles fell into similar carrion traps that their great-grandparents, or perhaps even more distant descendants, had stumbled upon in the Nebraska prairie. This time, the beetles were caught searching for a carcass in the forested habitat of The Wilds.

According to Spear, these beetles were the descendants of those his team had released on Wild’s property, meaning the beetles they covered with dirt over the rat corpse had successfully reproduced. It isn’t clear if the beetles were descended from those they released last summer or a previous summer. But one thing is clear: the beetles had survived Ohio’s cold winter. 

The discovery was a relief. In 2017, the team caught 21 beetles, while 2018 saw higher catches at 55. However, none were captured between the end of winter and the time before annual releases — until 2019.

Spear is looking forward to this year’s annual releases, set to take place June 18 and July 2, even though his team won’t be helped by volunteers, due to the pandemic. Recently, on June 3, The Wild’s technician Andrea Malek discovered the sixth overwintered beetle, only this time, it was a beetle they had released last summer, rather than the progeny of one. Spear discovered this when he looked at the beetle’s marking, used to identify any beetle they release. “That beetle has been through an entire year,” he said. “And that’s about the maximum lifespan of these beetles… It’s been through an entire summer, an entire winter and it’s still moving around.” A small victory, indeed.

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While We Were Social Distancing

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/05/2020 - 3:01am in

With mounting deaths and unemployment at Depression-era highs there’s even more news flying under the radar. The team at BillMoyers.com brings you the news you need to know — some of it good, some of it outrageous, all of it important — that’s been covered up by COVID-19. Continue reading

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A Post-COVID Vision: The Full and Sustainable Employment Act

By Brian Czech

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that the Great God of GDP is a false god after all, impotent as Baal. The mighty American economy, with unprecedented GDP, has been knocked to its knees by one of the lowest conceivable life forms, a mere virus possessing not a single strand of DNA. Politicians who thought their legacies would be associated with “the greatest economy ever” now look like ridiculous priests of a sham religion.

GDP exceeding $21 trillion in 2019 ($87 trillion globally) has been powerless to cure the sickness, financial trauma, and fear experienced by millions of Americans and billions of souls worldwide. Adapting to the new reality of a COVID-infected world and the uncertain hope for a vaccine is depressing in the best of scenarios and devastating in the worst. Yet adapt we must, and that includes public policy as much as individual behavior.

Coronavirus briefing. We need a Full and Sustainable Employment Act.

Pushing for growth vs. protecting the public: COVID-19 as the latest episode. (Image: CC0, Credit: The White House)

The CDC, NIH, and WHO have provided recommendations for lowering the spread of the virus and helping infected patients survive. Politicians are attempting to balance such recommendations with the concern for a healthy economy. The problem is that virtually every major politician in the USA, as well as a majority of politicians in the world, think of economic health in terms of GDP growth. For that matter, so do the economists advising these politicians and appearing on mainstream media. Their “adaptation” to the COVID-caused recession is nothing more than a hapless attempt to get back to business as usual; that is, growing the GDP through fiscal and monetary “stimulus.” In other words, it’s no adaptation at all!

Common sense and a pair of eyes is enough to recognize that the need for social distancing—effective adaptation to COVID-19 at the individual level—translates into lower levels of economic activity and a lower velocity of money. Unfortunately, politicians are now handling public health as they handled environmental protection for decades, acting as if we can have our cake and eat it too. They seem to think that, with enough Plexiglas panels on factory floors and retail counters, we can stimulate the economy back into $21-trillion territory without suffering a pandemic death toll. We can expect claims of “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting public health,” echoing the decades-old mantra that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Will we be fooled again by the win-win rhetoric? I don’t think so—at least not nearly so many of us—because this time the threat of the growth obsession is a direct, imminent matter of life or death. As employees are prematurely pressured to return to work “for the economy,” knowing fully well that doing so increases their odds of contracting the deadly virus, surely they will rethink what “the economy” is really for and who is behind the push to “stimulate” it.

There will be a significant percentage of individuals who decide more or less happily never to return to the jobs that dominated their life pre-COVID. Many will wrestle with trade-offs, such as extra gardening and more childcare, and certainly less luxury goods and entertainment. Some will have saved enough—and were cautious enough to avoid debt traps—such that they may find the new lifestyle to be empowering and even more joyful than the old 9-to-5 grind. They won’t be contributing much to GDP, but they’ll be healthier and happier, and will hardly be a burden on the nation’s infrastructure and budget.

Unfortunately, many others will be desperate to return to work or find a new job. They may have little means of subsistence—no lawn for a victory garden—and some will be threatened with homelessness when they can’t pay the rent. Even they, however, will see through the lie that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the public from COVID-19.” They are victims of an unfair capitalist system who must go to work “for the economy” and risk their health in the process.

The experience of individuals far and wide, then, will be conducive to a sea-change in attitudes toward the economy, GDP growth, and the government’s role in defending its own taxpaying citizens.

A New Economic Policy for 21st Century America

A new policy vision for the post-COVID economy entails replacing the current policy. So, what exactly is the current policy? What is it that steers us constantly, relentlessly back onto the GDP growth path? Let’s take a short trip down institutional memory lane…

Harry Truman and the Full and Sustainable Employment Act

President Harry Truman signed the Employment Act in 1946; a first step in the formal pursuit of GDP growth. (Image: CC0, Credit: Abbie Rowe)

As a response to the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave Americans the New Deal. Most of the work programs were cultural successes and employed significant numbers of young men. Yet the Depression wasn’t “solved” until World War II, with the mobilization of the civilian labor force and technological progress spinning out of war-time laboratories. Most Americans know this basic story of the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II, but few seem aware of the Employment Act of 1946. We must be fully aware of it to move toward a new economic policy for the 21st century.

The Employment Act was a Keynesian adaptation to the experience of the Great Depression; that is, it was largely a result of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Prior to Keynes, economists clung stubbornly to their ideal of laissez faire (let do; non-interference) as the proper governmental approach to economic affairs. General Theory was the paradigm-shifting book that persuaded Western governments to take active fiscal and monetary measures for ensuring adequate demand for goods and full employment of the labor force.

In crafting the Employment Act, the 78th Congress was especially concerned about the social and cultural ravages of unemployment. It was less concerned with any explicit notion of economic growth. For one thing, national income accounting was in its infancy. Also, Congress was still reluctant to get the federal government very involved in economic affairs, especially with heightened concerns over the sway of communist ideology. That said, the Employment Act did establish the Council of Economic Advisors, which turned out to be a highly influential pro-growth institution for decades to come.

The American economy ran fairly smoothly and grew very rapidly for the next couple of decades, but by the 1970s, American political leadership was beside itself with the problem of stagflation, that is, recession (“stagnation”) concurrent with inflation. Economists thought you could have only one or the other for any significant period of time and that they were, in fact, countervailing forces. Unlike World War II, though, the Vietnam War wasn’t sufficient to kick the real economy into high gear. Efforts to stimulate investment and consumer spending by loosening the money supply only led to inflation. Thus, stagflation.

The bedeviling bouts of stagflation finally led Richard M. Nixon to announce, “We are all Keynesians now,” recognizing that conservative diehards were some of the last to accept any government involvement in macroeconomic policy. Nixon had established the Bureau of Economic Analysis in 1972 for state-of-the-art accounting and GDP calculation. The 95th Congress, led by Hubert Humphrey and Augustus Hawkins, worked to update the Employment Act, which was finally amended as the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (FEBGA) and signed by President Carter in 1978. As of then, the US government was fully and formally committed to GDP growth as central economic policy.

It was easy for supporters of FEBGA to argue mathematically that, all else equal, more jobs could be had with greater GDP. It was also easy for Big Money to hide behind pro-growth policy for purposes of accumulating more capital and increasing CEO salaries, without any concern for creating more jobs. Not surprisingly, FEBGA ended up a thick mix of fiscal and monetary policy that serves the capitalist as well as the labor force.

FEBGA is often referred to with the shorthand “Employment Act,” saving a number of syllables and reminding us of its original (1946) focus. I favor the full 1978 title, even if only via acronym, as a reminder that GDP growth is not just some wistful political notion or rhetorical tool but rather a formal, central policy of the USA pursued with fiscal, monetary, and deregulatory means, as well as diplomacy and terms of trade in international affairs.

Now, more than a half century later and in the midst of an economy-crushing pandemic, it’s time to rewrite FEBGA. We need a Full and Sustainable Employment Act, with the very name change communicating that growth is no longer sustainable.[1] The Full and Sustainable Employment Act will mark the transition from economic growth to a steady state economy, politically and every bit as formally as FEGBA called for growth.

Pro-growth politicians (or perhaps Big Money) came up with the brilliant metaphor, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” While at least one source attributes the phrase to President John F. Kennedy, it seems like the stuff of Madison Avenue. And, when limits to growth aren’t acknowledged, the logic illustrated by the metaphor is unassailable. All else equal (“ceteris paribus” in econ-speak), a growing GDP means more jobs. Of course the devil is in the phrase “all else equal,” because little is equal on the tilted chess board of a capitalist economy. Instead of more jobs, a growing GDP too often means more expensive technology and billionaire CEOs, who are just as effective at blasting ships out of the water as making way for more boats.

Either way, the metaphor of the rising tide sinks like a presidential approval rating when limits to growth are recognized, as they increasingly are and should especially be in the context of COVID-19. There is only so much water; the tide can’t rise forever. There is a limit to the number of boats at sea, too, and even a limit to boat-building material on shore. It’s high time for the “rising tide” metaphor to ebb all the way back into the rustic recesses of faded political minds.

It so happens that the acronym of Full and Sustainable Employment Act—FSEA—is useful for nailing the coffin shut on the “rising tide” metaphor. Combining “F” (for Full) and “SEA” invokes the image of a full sea. Why not take advantage of such a linguistic coincidence and make the message a little clearer yet? It is not unprecedented for Congress to wax metaphorical with the short title of a paradigm-shifting statute; they might as well call this one the “Full Seas Act.”

ships and the Full Sustainable Employment Act

“A rising tide lifts all boats” was a fine metaphor for the 20th century, but in the 21st century the seas are full. (Image: CC0, Credit: Good Free Photos)

What might the Full Seas Act actually look like? How will it conduce a steady state economy? What happens to the pro-growth arrangements established by FEBGA? The best way to envision these developments is to consider a proposed Section 2.[2]

Full Seas Act—Findings and Declaration

In a typical act of Congress, Section 1 provides a short title (“Full Seas Act” in this case). Section 2 is in many ways the most important section of a path-breaking statute because it establishes the key findings and declarations of Congress. It comprises a sort of preamble and emanates the spirit of the law. It justifies the details laid out in subsequent sections, and future policy development at the agency level will be informed by its content as well.

On the other hand, readers should keep in mind that Section 2 is never designed to address all the details of the challenge at hand, much less all the problems of the world. The crux of the Full Seas Act is a formal transition from economic growth to the steady state economy (most likely via degrowth). Therefore, Section 2 will not include references to specific policy tools such as minimum wages, energy caps, banking reforms, etc. Sections 3 and beyond just as surely will, however.

Without further ado, then, the initial public offering of the Full Seas Act, Section 2, more or less consistent with the canons of statutory construction:

 

SEC. 2.

(a) FINDINGS. The Congress finds that—

(1) Economic growth, as measured with gross domestic product (GDP), requires a growing human population, increasing per capita consumption, or both.

(2) Consistent with the natural sciences, including basic principles of physics and biology, there are limits to economic growth within and among nations.

(3) There is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, including the maintenance of: clean air and water; productive soils; biological diversity; stocks of natural resources including water, timber, fisheries, minerals, and fossil fuels, and; funds of ecosystem services including nutrient cycling, pollination, waste absorption, and carbon sequestration.

(4) A well-maintained, non-degraded environment is the foundation of a productive economy. Therefore, and because of the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, there is also a fundamental conflict between economic growth and the long-term maintenance of the economy including jobs, income, and wellbeing.

(5) A well-maintained economy is vital to national defense. Therefore, and because of the fundamental conflict between economic growth and the long-term maintenance of the economy, there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and national security.

(6) There is abundant environmental and economic evidence that long-term limits to growth have been and are being reached and exceeded in the Nation, other nations, and globally.

(7) There is abundant evidence that perennial fiscal and monetary efforts to stimulate GDP growth are increasingly causing environmental, economic, and social harm while resulting in fewer benefits, with the harm gradually exceeding the benefits.

(b) DECLARATION. The Congress declares that—

(1) It is heretofore the policy of the Nation to undertake a gradual but certain transition from the goal and pursuit of economic growth to the goal and pursuit of a sustainable steady state economy, with stabilized or mildly fluctuating population and per capita consumption as generally indicated, all else being equal, by a mildly fluctuating GDP.

(2) The transition to a steady state economy must be undertaken with every intent and effort to achieve and maintain the full employment of the labor force consistent with environmental protection and other aspects of economic sustainability including a balanced federal budget and the effective control of inflation.

(3) The President, President’s Cabinet, Council of Economic Advisors, Federal Reserve, and federal agency directors will immediately cease and desist from developing strategies and initiatives to grow or stimulate the economy. Existing policies, programs, and projects designed explicitly to grow or stimulate the economy shall not be extended beyond fiscal year 2021 or beyond the designated sunset date, whichever comes later.

(4) The Congressional Research Service, collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget and Council of Economic Advisers, will review and summarize the federal agency mission statements, goals, objectives, policies, programs, and practices designed for GDP growth, producing a Report on Federal Growth Incentives no later than 30 April 2022.

(5) A Commission on Economic Sustainability (“the Commission”) is hereby established to include the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce, chaired by the Secretary of the Interior, to estimate and monitor environmentally sustainable levels of population and socially optimal levels of GDP. The Commission will produce a Report on Sustainable Population and Optimal GDP no later than 31 August 2022.

(6) The Commission Chair, with counsel of the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Secretary of Commerce, Federal Reserve Chair, and Secretary of the Treasury, drawing on the Report on Federal Growth Incentives and the Report on Sustainable Population and Optimal GDP, and pursuant to the framework provided in subsequent sections herein, will develop and deliver to the President, no later than 31 August 2023, a 25-year Steady-State Transition Plan detailing and scheduling the adjustments, modifications, additions, and deletions necessary to establish a system of government operations most conducive to a steady state economy at an estimated optimal level of GDP.

(7) The President, Cabinet secretaries, and federal agency directors shall not overlook the existence, neglect the enforcement, or underfund the performance of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, or any other of the Nation’s environmental laws or regulations on grounds that said laws or regulations may interfere with the workings of the economy or slow the rate of GDP growth.

 

Stay Tuned for the Rest of the Full Seas Act

For policy wonks and steady-state advocates, exciting times lie ahead as Sections 3 and beyond of the Full Seas Act will feature long-awaited steady-state policy instruments. The starting point should be the top ten policies favored by Herman Daly. Chapter 11 of Supply Shock is largely for purposes of informing the Full Seas Act. And, at the risk of unintentionally omitting dozens of helpful individuals, now is the time to revisit specific proposals of scholars such as Peter Victor, Tim Jackson, Dan O’Neill, and Phil Lawn as well as the rich mix of overlapping ideas emanating from the European degrowth movement.


“Steady statesmanship” an essential aspect of the Full Seas Act. (Image: CC0, Credit: U.S. Department of State)

Speaking of the latter, the Full Seas Act could hardly be effective in a world pursuing GDP growth with only rare exceptions such as Bhutan and New Zealand. Ramped up levels of international trade will be difficult to reconcile with the steady state economy of a huge nation-state. Therefore, the Full Seas Act must address the need for steady statesmanship in international diplomacy.

We should take a page from the playbook of the 93rd Congress, which passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Congress used Section 8 largely to implement American obligations pursuant to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or “CITES,” one of the most sweeping international conservation agreements to date.

Our approach in the Full Seas Act needs to be more proactive, because in this case there is no convention ready and waiting to be implemented. We should devote one section, then, to fleshing out and pursuing the development of a Convention on Economic Sustainability, most likely with a United Nations secretariat. This convention will be assembled for purposes of addressing global limits to growth and the need for “contraction and convergence,” or the acceptance of degrowth in wealthy countries while nations with ubiquitous poverty are assisted to the extent that they have diplomatically established their own sustainable steady-state goals.

Steady statesmanship may be even more difficult than the domestic policy reforms required for an American steady state economy. Yet the harsh realities of COVID make such statesmanship feasible as well. In any event, does it matter how difficult it is, in deciding whether to pursue it? After all, what is the alternative? As we like to say at CASSE, peace is a steady state economy.

And so is health.

[1] See Chapter 11, “A Call for Steady Statesmen,” in Czech, B., Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution (2013, New Society Publishers) for the initial proposal of the Full and Sustainable Employment Act along with numerous policy tools and institutions to be considered in drafting the legislation.
[2]The Section 2 proposed herein does not include amending specifications. The bill presented to Congress will specify which clauses of FEBGA are to be amended, and how. Basically, however, the intent is to replace Section 2 of FEBGA with the proposed Section 2 herein.

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

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